SAUGERTIES, N.Y. — In response to what he says will be an unintended consequence of New York state’s legalization of recreational marijuana, Saugerties Police Chief Joseph Sinagra has proposed a local ordinance that he believes will put more control in the hands of police.
Sinagra said the proposed local law, which he presented last week during a meeting with town of Saugerties Supervisor Fred Costello and Village Mayor Bill Murphy, addresses “oversights” that he said make it impossible for police to charge anyone under the age of 21 with illegal possession of marijuana.
But state lawmakers and other officials are taking exception to Sinagra’s interpretation.
In an email, state Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston, said it is “unfortunate that a local leader in law enforcement would misrepresent or even just jump to unwarranted conclusions about the statutes he is charged with carrying out.”
Sinagra said state lawmakers “are going to have to put in language that says how you are going to charge a person [under age 21] under this section,” referring to legislation passed March 31 and signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on April 1, making New York the 15th state to legalize recreational marijuana.
The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), which Cahill co-sponsored, legalizes possession of up to 3 ounces of marijuana by anyone age 21 or older.
“They are going to have to clean up the language,” Sinagra said, insisting that although the law states repeatedly that only those at least 21 years old may legally possess marijuana, the statute lacks the language police need to charge younger people with a violation.
Sinagra said he is confident that changes will be made, citing revisions made after New York SAFE Act gun-control law and bail reform legislation were passed, but he said those changes will take time.
Until then, Sinagra said, he hopes town and village officials will adopt his two-page proposed ordinance which recognizes “that the legislative intent in the legalization of cannabis, possession and consumption was to be restricted to persons 21 years of age and older” but says that “in order to protect the physical and mental well-being of our youth,” police must be empowered immediately to arrest persons under the age of 21 who possess cannabis.
Reached by phone, Costello said Sinagra’s proposal would be addressed Wednesday night during a workshop session of the Town Board. The supervisor said he had not reviewed the legislation with the town’s legal counsel.
Murphy had no comment about Sinagra’s proposal, other than to tell his clerk to say he had not had sufficient time to review it.
Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa wrote in an email that he agrees with Sinagra “to a certain extent that this law has issues in particular to protecting our youth.” But the sheriff did not say it was unenforceable.
“This law has just been enacted, and this office will wait for clarification from the [Ulster County] District Attorney’s Office, who will be responsible for the prosecutions,” Figueroa wrote.
Referring to Sinagra’s proposal as “a little Balkanization” of Saugerties, Marco Caviglia, chief of felony trials for the Ulster County District Attorney’s Office, referred to the police chef’s proposed ordinance as “at best stopgap.”
“We haven’t had a chance to really study this, but at first blush, it seems to raise a lot of questions,” Caviglia said by phone Tuesday. He said Sinagra’s proposal needs further review, especially in relation to its call to more than double the fine for illegal possession of marijuana from $100 to $250, and of its impact on other police agencies and the county government.
If Sinagra’s plan goes forward, Caviglia said, “we would expect that it would be submitted to us for our comment and review.”
Bianca Coppola, spokeswoman for state Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, wrote in an email that Sinagra’s interpretation of the state law is “incorrect.” Hinchey also was a co-sponsor of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act.
“Under the MRTA, it is unlawful for minors to possess or use cannabism,” Coppola wrote. “Similar to alcohol, if a minor is found in possession of cannabis, law enforcement has the authority to confiscate it and impose a fine of up to $50.”
Sinagra argues that officers might hesitate even to confiscate marijuana from young people until the state legislation is revised.
“Mr. Sinagra has demonstrated time and again that his interpretation of this and other legislative actions in Albany are ill-informed and alarmist,” Cahill wrote. “It is as if, instead of seeking to inform the public, he is advancing his own agenda for some other purpose.”
Cahill continued: “While the MRTA was carefully and thoughtfully drafted by the sponsors and subject to extensive debate and discussion by colleagues, including me, it is still possible that the Legislature will see fit to amend the law in the future. It is not uncommon, nor should it be unexpected with a change as important and complex as this is.”
But, he added, “that is not to say that Mr. Sinagra’s analysis is correct in any way.”