ALBANY — A group pleaded in East Capitol Park on Monday for lawmakers to cease legalizing recreational marijuana after leaders reached an agreement over the weekend to allow adult use in the state of the psychoactive drug derived from cannabis.
Concerned law enforcement, educators and activists protested the state’s imminent vote permitting the sale and use of recreational weed for adults 21 and older after Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, announced late Saturday night they reached an agreement to legalize marijuana.
The state Legislature is expected to bring the updated Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act to the floor for a vote this week.
“I say to our legislators, if you vote yes on this legislation, you are voting to harm my child,” Kyle Belokopitsky, executive director of the state PTA, said with activists outside the state Capitol on Monday afternoon.
Belokopitsky has a son in sixth grade in public school, and said the PTA and other state agencies are working to turn as many Legislature votes as possible against legalization.
“I say to all our parents and families out there, you need to be worried about this,” she said. “You need to call your legislators and tell them to vote no on this. A yes vote is a harm to our children. A yes vote will harm my son and it will harm our other 2.6 million school children, and shame on you … This will harm our children, this will make our roads less safe and this will lead to death.”
The MRTA is sponsored by Sen. Liz Kreuger, D-Manhattan, who chairs the Finance Committee.
Lawmakers have attempted to legalize adult-use cannabis for several years. If the bill passes this week, New York will become the 15th state to allow recreational marijuana use and sales.
Activists pleaded for legislators to properly research and determine how much legalization will cost law enforcement, and the anticipated cost increases in social and mental health services.
The state Association of Chiefs of Police and state Sheriff’s Association oppose the legislation because of traffic safety standards and concerns.
Driving issues, including probable cause and gathering evidence of people operating vehicles under the influence of marijuana, were major sticking points for legislative leaders during negotiations.
“They haven’t even figured out in this legislation how they’re going to measure how stoned you are in the car,” said Patrick Phelan, executive director of the state Association of Chiefs of Police. “There’s no BAC, there’s no breathalyzer for this. … The smell of the product is the only thing they’ve got going for them. We are way too early on this, folks. I urge our state leaders to reconsider and hold this off until the time is right.”
If passed, the law will no longer permit police to consider the smell of marijuana to be probable cause to search a vehicle. Police can continue to use the smell of marijuana to be proof of driving while under the influence, but the smell of marijuana on an individual or in a building will no longer be considered reasonable cause to search the property or person.
“We have a very simple job — and that’s to protect life and property,” Phelan said. “That’s all we’re talking about is keeping people safe. I’m not talking about stopping a guy from sitting in his backyard and smoking a joint. Honestly, I really don’t care. But I know people are going to get in traffic crashes and they’re going to die. I know people are going to die because they pass this law. That’s what I’m legitimately concerned about.”
The state Department of Health will conduct a study on emerging technology that could test for marijuana impairment with a saliva test if the marijuana bill becomes law.
Lawmakers did not properly address traffic safety standards or concerns in the proposed legislation, Phelan said, adding the state needs about five times its roughly 200 drug recognition experts.
“There is no reliable roadside test for marijuana impairment,” he said. “There is no agreed-upon scientific standard for impairment for intoxication by means of marijuana. You need to prepare for the impaired driving issues before you legalize the drug.”
Others argued legalization will increase worker injury claims against employers and the state because of the New York’s Scaffold Law, which holds employers and property owners fully liable when an employee is injured on the job. The Scaffold Law holds contractors 100% responsible in work-related injuries or accidents regardless if the employee was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“That’s outrageous to begin with,” said Santino Thomas, spokesman for the Empire State chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors. “This situation, when it presents itself — and it will, it’s only a matter of time — and our contractors find themselves fighting for their jobs and their livelihood.
“When it does happen, it will because of the shortsightedness of this Legislature and the governor,” he added. “As long as the Scaffold Law exists in New York state, ABC cannot support the legalization of recreational marijuana.”
Tax collections from marijuana sales are expected to bring in $350 million per year to the state government, and the industry could create between 30,000 and 60,000 jobs, according to Cuomo’s office.
Phelan criticized the argument that marijuana legalization is necessary to balance the state’s historic deficit — about $15 billion, with more than $8 billion added to the revenue gap during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re standing in front of a house of people who don’t know how to manage money,” he said. “This taxation of marijuana won’t change a thing.”
PTA Vice President Amany Dgheim shared statistics about increased marijuana use in California, Colorado and Oregon youths after legalizing recreational weed.
Between 2017 and 2018, the percentage of eighth- and 10th-graders who reported vaping marijuana rose to 63%.
In Colorado, the annual rate of marijuana-impaired driving deaths rose 150% after legalization, Dgheim said. Marijuana-related poisoning hospitalizations increased by 123%.
“These numbers are much higher than alcohol and other drugs,” Dgheim said. “This is a respiratory pandemic that affects our lungs and our immune system. That’s exactly what marijuana does as well.”
Previous marijuana-related convictions will immediately be expunged from all New Yorkers’ records if passed.
The proposed bill provides funding for training drug recognition officers and expands traffic safety protections, including the development of roadside testing technology.
The state’s new Cannabis Control Board and the state Office of Cannabis Management will oversee New York’s legal cannabis market to include medical marijuana, adult-use recreational marijuana, cannabinoid hemp and hemp extracts, according to the bill.
“Legalization is right after the state of New York has figured out how to keep alcohol out of the hands of kids because it’s never been able to do that, how to keep cigarettes and vaping products out of the hands of kids, and they’ve never been able to do that, and most importantly, keeping opioids out of the hands of kids and they’ve failed miserably at doing that,” said David Little, the executive director of the state Rural Schools Association. “So, how in the world do they think they’re going to keep recreational marijuana out of the hands of our children and our schools is absolutely beyond me.”