Legalizing marijuana not a priority among St. Lawrence County representatives in Albany
Sunday, January 19, 2014 - 8:39 am

By ANDY GARDER

A recent proposition in Albany to legalize possession, cultivation and sale of marijuana for recreational use will not have support from most North Country representatives, but they are split on medical marijuana.

A proposed Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act would legalize possession of up to two ounces of marijuana, seven grams of marijuana concentrates (such as hashish) and allow for home cultivation for up to six plants.

A $50-per-ounce excise tax would be placed on all sales, with proceeds going to fund causes such as substance abuse treatment, similar to casino revenues.

There would be a minimum age of 21 to purchase marijuana and it would be regulated by the state Liquor Authority, the same way as alcohol. It was proposed by Sen. Liz Kreuger of Manhattan and is supported by Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard N. Gottfried, also of Manhattan.

Conflict with Federal Law

But St. Lawrence County’s state Assembly and Senate legislators offer often-heard arguments on the “con” side of the debate for pot legalization, including the fact that it is still banned by federal law.

“New York does not have the legal ability to legalize marijuana for recreational or medicinal use – the federal government has jurisdiction over that,” Democratic Assemblywoman Addie Russell said, adding that she has supported reduced penalties for possession of small amounts. She represents the northern portion of St. Lawrence County

“I don’t feel that I should be putting my constituents in that kind of jeopardy, given … a large federal law enforcement presence in the North Country.”

Republican Senator Joe Griffo agreed, saying the proposed law “would conflict with the federal Controlled Substance Act, which would likely make most legitimate businesses shy away from selling marijuana.” However, he added that he applauds Kreuger’s efforts in addressing the state’s drug problem. Griffo represents the central portion of St. Lawrence County, including Massena and Potsdam.

Health Issues

Health consequences of marijuana use have been hotly debated and many believe smoking it for long periods of time can promote lung cancer.

“Smoking is at the top of the list … contributing to an overall poor quality of health in the North Country,” Russell said. She added that smoking of any substance, whether tobacco or marijuana, should be prevented altogether.

Russell said she is satisfied with tobacco deterrents currently in place, including high taxes and aggressive law enforcement of the 18-and-over policy for sales.

There are conflicting views on pot’s cancer-causing potential. The Washington Post reported in 2006 a study conducted by a pulmonologist from the University of California at Los Angeles which asserts there is no link between marijuana use and cancer.

“I don’t think legalizing marijuana is the best idea at this time, when you consider that in recent years, we have been dealing with a number of issues related to drugs and synthetic drugs—bath salts, synthetic marijuana, prescription pill abuse and others,” said Republican Sen. Patty Ritchie said via email. She represents the northwestern half of St. Lawrence County.

Said Republican Sen. Betty Little, “You see a lot of automobile accidents where there is marijuana involved.” She represents Parishville, Colton, Hopkinton, Piercefield and Clare, along with Franklin, Clinton, Essex, Warren and Washington counties.

Brian Peck, chief of staff for Republican Assemblyman Ken Blankenbush, wrote in an email that Blankenbush “has recently made comment that he opposes medical marijuana because it has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.” Blankenbush represents DeKalb, Gouverneur, Hermon, Russell, Edwards, Fowler and Pitcairn, along with Lewis County and parts of Jefferson and Oneida county.

“Marijuana abuse has been linked to cancer, lung damage, depression and has been shown to effect a person’s problem-solving ability long after the high goes away,” Griffo wrote. “It is more addictive than alcohol.”

A statement from Kreuger’s office includes a quote from Dr. Carl Hart, associate professor of psychology at Columbia University, who says he has studied marijuana in a neuropsychological, psychological and behavioral context for the past 15 years.

“I can tell you that the claims about the harms associated with marijuana use have been greatly exaggerated in the media. Far greater harm results from arresting people for marijuana possession and the racial disparities of those arrests,” said Hart.

In fact, many people feel marijuana has medicinal benefits, and Gov. Cuomo said in his State of the State presentation last week that he will take executive action to allow 20 hospitals in the state to begin dispensing pot for health problems.

Medical Marijuana

Some North Country representatives have a slightly more amenable attitude toward the drug’s medicinal value. It is often cited as an effective treatment for illnesses such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma and is said to ease chronic nerve pain.

“I’d be open-minded if it was available somehow in a limited way” for medical purposes, said Assemblyman Marc Butler, who represents Madrid, Norfolk, Stockholm Parishville, Pierrepont, Clare, Colton, Clifton and Fine. “There are some of us who may bend a bit on the issue.”

“I really feel for people that need this type of medication,” Little said, adding that she supports synthetic marijuana that is administered by a medical professional in pill form.

“It may be of some benefit to folks that are suffering severe pain and medical problems,” Russell said.

Concerns for Youth

Some feel that its legalization would make it too easy for kids to get their hands on it.

“Young people are extremely impressionable, and the legalization of marijuana, in any capacity, signals to them that using marijuana is OK,” Sen. Ritchie said.

Sen. Little said she is concerned that kids would be getting marijuana and going to school under the influence. She cited a school in Colorado that she learned of while in the state visiting her son that now does random drug screening. They legalized pot in 2012.

“I think there’s a lot of issues that are unresolved … I’m sure there will be more discussion going forward,” Little said.

Would Law Be Effective?

Butler said he feels the provisions limiting personal possession to two ounces and cultivation to six plants “is virtually unenforceable.”

“Are the troopers going to go in … and count your plants? I think not,” he stated.

Butler is also concerned that there will be no way to regulate the amount of THC in legally-sold marijuana, the drug that creates the high.

Griffo believes the six plants allowed under the bill are “more than an individual could (and should) consume” and may encourage illicit sales.

“Her proposal to establish a $50-per-ounce excise tax would also provide a motive for the black market drug trade to stay in business, since the tax would add about 20 percent to the cost of the product if purchased legally,” according to Griffo.

Blankenbush said he feels sending a straight message is more important than the tax revenue, which Kreuger estimates could bring $3 billion annually to the state’s coffers. She bases the amount on the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s estimate that 1.9 million New Yorkers have used marijuana in the last year.

"We are sending mixed messages to law enforcement, the healthiness of smoking, and to our youth that tax revenue is more important than the health and safety of our people by legalizing marijuana for recreational use," according to Blankenbush.

What Bill’s Sponsors Say

Gottfried and Kreuger see marijuana in a drastically different light than our local lawmakers and have sponsored the legislation to fix what they see as a broken model.

“We need to move from a dysfunctional prohibition model to the tax and regulate approach,” said Gottfried. “Marijuana is nowhere near as potentially harmful as alcohol. Our law is dishonest, and that undermines our message to young people.”

“The illegal marijuana economy is alive and well, and our unjust laws are branding nonviolent New Yorkers, especially young adults, as criminals, creating a vicious cycle that ruins lives and needlessly wastes taxpayer dollars,” Kreuger said in a statement.