Some St. Lawrence County state reps shifting attitudes on recreational pot
Wednesday, June 20, 2018 - 2:56 pm

By ANDY GARDNER

Editor’s note: The director of the New York State Health Department, Howard Zucker, on June 18 said the DOH is expected to release a report advocating recreational marijuana legalization. This story was written prior to that announcement.

Some of St. Lawrence County's state representatives' views on legal recreational cannabis have turned away from the opposition expressed a few years ago and most of them are open to at least studying the proposal.

There is a state commission, created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, that is examining the issue of legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes. The state currently has a medical marijuana program, and possession of it recreationally is decriminalized for amounts under 25 grams.

Here is a look at what some of St. Lawrence County's representatives are saying about the issue, compared with their thoughts in January of 2014.

Sen. Betty Little

Sen. Little, a Republican from Queensbury, says she believes the commission study is a "reasonable" step, and she continues to support the medical marijuana program, but hasn't decided on recreational. In St. Lawrence County, her district includes Parishville, Clare, Colton, Hopkinton and Piercefield.

“The governor proposed a commission to examine this issue and I think it’s a reasonable approach and will help inform the Legislature and public of the various pros and cons. I did support the medical marijuana program and I’ve seen firsthand the positive impact on the life of a young woman suffering from epilepsy. I also have read articles about successfully transitioning people away from opioids by using medical marijuana," Little said in an emailed statement.

She said the issue is complicated by federal prohibition.

“Marijuana remains illegal on the federal level, which has complicated the medical marijuana program here in New York State. Given that numerous other states have legalized marijuana or are in the process of doing so, there is a lot of information that can be examined, which would seem to be to our benefit," her statement reads.

Four years ago, Little was quoted as saying she opposed recreational pot legalization.

“You see a lot of automobile accidents where there is marijuana involved," Little said in 2014, adding that she was concerned about youth having access to the plant. However, her support for the medical program was unchanged.

“I really feel for people that need this type of medication," she said four years ago.

Sen. Patty Ritchie

Sen. Ritchie, a Republican from Heuvelton who represents northwest St. Lawrence County, has not wavered from her opposition to legal pot. She cites the opioid epidemic, which has claimed many lives in St. Lawrence County and nationwide, and says efforts should be focused on drug prevention.

"With our state—and region—still facing an opioid epidemic, I don’t believe that now is the time to legalize marijuana. Instead, we should be continuing to focus our efforts on stopping the spread of drugs and connecting those looking to break free from the cycle of addition [sic] with the help they need to do so," she said in an emailed statement.

Her thoughts now are close to her comments from 2014, where she also voiced a concern for youth thinking about using drugs.

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

Sen. Joe Griffo

Sen. Griffo, a Republican from Rome, didn't specifically say if he is in favor of legalizing pot, but is open to the state studying it and seeing the results. He represents the central portion of St. Lawrence County, including Potsdam and Massena.

"As part of his budget proposal earlier this year, the Governor announced plans to form a panel that would study the possible legalization of marijuana. We supported plans for this study as part of the recently-enacted State Budget and I am looking forward to seeing what the panel concludes. I also don’t object to efforts seeking to decriminalize marijuana on the federal level because this would lift obstacles that would allow states to have more say and to make their own decisions on this matter, therefore avoiding the risk of being in violation of federal law which supersedes state law," Griffo said in a statement sent via email. "It is important that we fully understand and comprehend all aspects of this issue, including the social, public safety and health impacts of legalizing marijuana before making any decision. We also should study what other states are doing and how they are doing it, while also considering the sentiment and will of the public. In the end, though, I am willing to keep an open mind when it comes to this matter."

Four years ago, Griffo pointed to a conflict with federal prohibition and concerns for potential health risks as reasons for opposing marijuana legalization at that time.

He said four years ago that he was concerned a bill to legalize “would conflict with the federal Controlled Substance Act, which would likely make most legitimate businesses shy away from selling marijuana.”

Also in 2014, he said he believes marijuana can be responsible for adverse health effects.

“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 at the time. “It is more addictive than alcohol.”

Assemblyman Billy Jones

Assemblyman Jones, a Democrat from Chateaugay, was not in office in 2014. He represents a narrow portion of eastern St. Lawrence County.

He sidestepped the recreational marijuana question, but said he supports a more liberal medical marijuana program.

“Before we consider legalizing the personal use of marijuana, I’m concerned with the current allowable amount of medical marijuana that many in pain or are terminally ill are able to receive. Medical marijuana can provide a serious amount of relief to those in need. I believe we need to strongly consider the health benefits of medical marijuana and do our best to improve this process so that those suffering can alleviate their pain in a timely fashion. In March, our federal partners in Congress took a step in the right direction by renewing a spending bill that will prevent federal funds from being spent on interfering with state medical marijuana programs and I look forward to seeing these funds effectively utilized to expand medical marijuana access," Jones said in an emailed statement.

Assemblyman Ken Blankenbush

Assemblyman Blankenbush, a Republican from Black River, said the issue of recreational cannabis should be decided federally and he does not consider it a priority.

“I believe that choosing between recreational legalization or continued prohibition is a decision our federal government should make. Legalizing marijuana is not one of my priorities. During the remaining days of this year’s legislative session, I’ll be focused on issues that are more important to my constituents- supporting our dairy industry, revitalizing our infrastructure and making New York State more affordable for families, seniors and small business owners," Blankenbush said in an emailed response.

Four years ago, Blankenbush said he was opposed to both recreational and medical marijuana.

"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 in 2014. The context of the comment was in response to a proposal in the legislature at the time that would have legalized and taxed pot.

Also that year, a Blankenbush spokesman said the assemblyman had “recently made comment that he opposes medical marijuana because it has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.”

Blankenbush represents the towns of DeKalb, Gouverneur, Hermon, Russell, Edwards, Fowler and Pitcairn in St. Lawrence County.

Restorative Justice

One area of the marijuana debate is restorative justice. Advocates say that if cannabis becomes legal, anyone who has been convicted of marijuana offenses should have the charge expunged from their record, and anyone incarcerated or under supervision for just a marijuana-related offense should be released.

Just one of the representatives polled on the issue offered a response, Sen. Little.

"This would be something that the commission could examine. We are not aware of people in prison serving time for marijuana possession alone. There are some dealers incarcerated apparently. I think there would be variables to consider such as selling or distributing to minors," Little said in her emailed response.

As of June 2, there were 35 people serving sentences in New York state prisons where their only crime of conviction was criminal sale of possession of marijuana, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of their 49,557 inmates, according to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Of those 35, four are serving time at the Willard Drug Treatment Campus. As of June 3, there were 99 parolees whose only crime of conviction was sale or possession of marijuana, NYSDOCCS said.

Neighbors Legalizing

Canada and Vermont are both approaching full legalization of marijuana. Vermont will legalize it on July 1. Adults age 21 and up will be able to possess a personal quantity and cultivate a small number of plants. Canada is also on track to fully legalize cannabis in July.

However, cross-border travelers will not be able to bring any legal or illegal marijuana or marijuana products to or from either country. More details about Canadian legalization and the potential ramifications for cross-border travelers are at https://tinyurl.com/yd2q25nc.

Assemblywoman Addie Jenne, D-Theresa, and Assemblyman Marc Butler, R-Newport, did not return requests for comment on this story. Russell represents northern St. Lawrence County and Butler represents Madrid, Norfolk, Stockholm, Parishville, Pierrepont, Clare, Colton, Clifton and Fine.

The story from 2014 talking about the local reps' views on the legalization issue is at https://tinyurl.com/ybrturnw.