St. Lawrence County Opioid Task Force panel offers opinions on legalizing cannabis
Friday, July 12, 2019 - 5:18 pm

From left, Dr. John Burnett, Potsdam Police Sgt. Clint Perrigo, Massena Central Superintendent Pat Brady and St. Lawrence County Det. Arthur Shattuck. NCNow photo by Andy Gardner.

North Country This Week

CANTON -- A panel discussion on legalizing marijuana at Friday’s St. Lawrence County Opioid Task Force meeting included mostly negative opinions on legalizing the plant from two police officers, a school superintendent and a doctor.

The four-person panel included Dr. John Burnett, who is certified in addiction medicine and is qualified to certify patients to participate in the New York state medical marijuana program. Also included was Sgt. Clint Perrigo from the Potsdam Police Department, who also has the title of drug recognition expert. The other panelists were Massena Central School Superintendent Patrick Brady and Det. Arthur Shattuck from the St. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office, and he is a member of the county’s Drug Task Force.

Their discussion centered around answering questions from people in attendance, which included healthcare professionals, educators, local justices and citizens.

When asked if statewide marijuana legalization would help or hinder the local opioid problem, the panelists mostly opined it would hinder. Marijuana is not the same class of drug as opioids, which includes heroin, morphine and prescription painkillers like oxycodone and hydrocodone.

"I think it's gonna hinder. I've dealt with nothing but narcotics for the last eight years ... most our cases start off there's marijuana involved in some shape ... whether it's personal use or sales,” Shattuck said.

Perrigo said he doesn’t buy into the “gateway drug” theory, but said he has read reports of an increase in marijuana-involved traffic fatalities in Colorado, where it’s legal for adult recreational use.

"Do I necessarily believe in the gateway aspect? Not really. I believe people who are going to be users are going to find a way to get there,” he said. "When Colorado became legalized ... New York has attempted to learn from the mistakes Colorado has made.”

Brady said he is part of a statewide superintendents association and “we have been strongly lobbying against this.” He said he wants to see it kept as far away from kids as possible, and he sees it in “I would say 70 percent” of the disciplinary hearings that require superintendent involvement.

Burnett said he thinks marijuana should be legal so its users will know it isn’t tainted with other substances or grown in soil that could have a high concentration of heavy metals or other toxins.

“People are already using it. They're getting it from illegal sources. From a harm reduction standpoint I think it would be better getting it from a reputable source,” he said.

He also said he thinks it would ease strain on the justice system.

"Some patients are in treatment, they smoke marijuana, they're violated, they go back to jail. I don't understand that," he said. "It puts a lot of stress on our criminal justice system."

Brady said educators and administrators are focusing on prevention, especially in the transition between junior high and high school.

“That is such a pivotal year,” he said.

He said he thinks the police officer that will patrol the district hallways starting next year could act as a deterrent, although that won’t be the reason the person is there. Officials refer to the in-school officer as a “school resource officer” or “SRO.”

"He's not necessarily to be out there looking for it,” Brady said, but will be “providing some positive reinforcement to students, guiding them along like the teachers are."

When asked if they think the public is prepared for legalized cannabis, the two police officers and the doctor said they don’t believe so.

"I think you're going to see healthcare costs go up ... I think there's going to be a major curve when it comes to the cost of doing business,” Shattuck said.

Perrigo said authorities are trying to put more drug recognition experts on the streets as a way to prepare for legalization.

“"I think we can look at the cons of legalization, one is increased use,” Burnett said. "Our foster system is taxed ... that's with other drugs, but marijuana may be part of that too."

"I would say the cons outweigh the pros,” Perrigo said. "All you're going to do is potentially take people who aren't using ... they're going to end up recreationally using it and get the adverse reactions.”

One woman spoke up and pushed back against the largely anti-legalization arguments coming from the panel.

"I think what happens in a prohibition model is everybody thinks adults can't control their use ... that you're going to get behind the wheel of a car and drive. And that doesn't give any credibility to the individual,” Ann McLaughlin said. "If somebody's too high to drive, let them decide."

"Education should be done definitely to say ... ‘don't get behind the wheel and drive when you're high’," she said. "Why would you continue to encourage people not to have access to a tested, proven, analyzed product?"

Prior to the panel talk, St. Lawrence County STOP-DWI coordinator Michele James opened the meeting with a slideshow. It started with a sketch from the Canadian comedy show “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” showing a police officer stopping three stoned people in a car with smoke rolling out the windows. She said she opens her presentations to youth “with a little humor” and “that is not what they do when they pull someone over.”

Later in her presentation she handed out several pairs of what she called “marijuana goggles.” She claimed wearing them mimics the effects of having consumed cannabis. The lens created a sort of funhouse mirror effect and they were tinted green.

At one point, she had two men put them on while she held up a flashing red light and asked if they could see it. Neither could through the distorting lens. She then held up a black ball and a red ball and asked if they could tell the colors apart through the tinted lens. Neither could.