Breaking The Grass Ceiling

Medical cannabis joint on cannabis buds on wooden table

While Governor Andrew Cuomo made clear his plan to pursue legalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for recreational use, East Hampton and Southampton officials are vehemently against it.

Legislator Rob Trotta, a Republican from Fort Salonga, candidate for Suffolk County executive, and a retired detective, is leading the charge against Cuomo’s pitch made at his January State of the State address. He called the move a “step in the wrong direction” at a March 5 meeting of the county legislature in Riverhead. Trotta said he will press ahead with his plan to propose legislation for the county to opt out of the governor’s plan should it be approved.

“The health and well-being of our residents are far more important than plugging the holes in our bloated budget,” he said.

Nearly all the dozens who spoke in favor of allowing recreational pot sales referred to the tax benefits as only a positive, pointing to states that have already legalized the drug.

“If you opt out, you’re not going to be able to get the tax money,” said Ron Gibbons of Great River.

In Colorado, since 2015, legalize marijuana sales have generated $2.4 billion, according to a study by the Marijuana Policy Group, a Denver-based economic consulting firm. California legalization brought in around $74.2 million in tax revenue during the second quarter of 2018, up 22 percent from the first three months of the year, the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration reported. In Massachusetts, data from the state Cannabis Control Commission showed that in November, customers spent more than $2 million on marijuana products during the first week of recreational sales alone.

Vermont Governor Phil Scott signed a law making recreational use legal last year under guidelines that allow adults to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, two mature and four immature plants. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy made good on his promise to legalize recreational cannabis last week, also establishing a process for expunging convictions for low-level marijuana offenses and requiring the cannabis industry to include minority and women-owned businesses, as well as low-income communities and individuals.

“If Suffolk County says no to this, you’re out of your minds,” said Riverhead resident Sue Reeve, who mentioned it could also bring jobs to the area.

In California, nearly 38,000 jobs were created in the legal cannabis sector last year, according to cannabis market research company BDS Analytics in Boulder, Colorado. In Colorado, more than 18,000 new full-time jobs were reported according to Marijuana Policy Group.

Counterintuitive To Condone

While Cuomo’s bill would not allow towns and villages to opt out like counties can, East Hampton Village Mayor Paul Rickenbach and Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki have gone on record being against the bill. East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc also said he would support the county choosing to opt out, but declined to comment whether he was for or against legalization.

In February, Rickenbach made it clear that he supports the use of medicinal marijuana “under the purview of a physician’s care,” adding it has shown to benefit healing, but submitted a letter to county Executive Steve Bellone conveying “strong opposition” to the legalization of recreational marijuana.

“What kind of message are we sending when we are taking steps to legalize the use of substances that are highly addictive and are considered gateway drugs to much more dangerous substances?” he said. “Recreational use of marijuana has no health benefit, and the potential impacts to society are largely unknown and deserve more study before governments move ahead with any legalization efforts.”

The New York State Association of Chiefs of Police — of which Skrynecki is a member — wrote a letter in opposition to legislation in January. “New York State is currently battling an opioid epidemic with law enforcement and public health professionals on the front line, and it would be counterintuitive to condone the use of marijuana,” the letter wrote.

Pot is often referred to as a “gateway drug” that some say leads to the use of prescription medications and opioids, such as heroin. Skrynecki said that even if the state legalized the drug, marijuana is illegal under federal law, classified as a “Schedule 1” drug, meaning the federal government views cannabis as highly addictive with no medical value. He said the legal law would, regardless, undoubtedly present challenges to law enforcement officers.

Lead To Increased Opioid Abuse?

State lawmakers are still figuring out the logistics when it comes to taxing, licensing, and regulating the drug, but Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said state guidelines would at least ensure regulations of product purchased from approved distributors.

“My biggest fear is it could be laced with fentanyl if people are buying it on the street — that’s a big problem,” he said. “If you can regulate it, at least you know it’s safe.”

“There’s a lot of pot being used already . . . somehow they’re managing to get it,” he said, adding people might be less likely to use prescription painkillers and heroin if there was a legal substitute. “I don’t think it would lead to more opioid use.”

Schneiderman also called Trotta’s proposal premature, saying there might not even be a provision to opt out of.

“The cart is a light-year ahead of the horse here,” he said.

Bridgehampton’s David Falkowski, founder of Open Minded Organics, which has a shop in Sag Harbor, agreed county legislators were getting ahead of themselves.

“It’s completely preemptive, because we have no idea what the state’s doing,” he said. “It might not be ready for the budget at the end of the month, so it might not even be presented.”

Falkowski is a farmer and local grower of industrial hemp — cannabis grown to have 0.3 percent or less THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — and pure cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-mind-altering compound derived from the plant, with a license by the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. He said Trotta’s proposal contains poor definitions and word choices, but added the issue is too important to be temporarily voted on.

Bellone is proposing legislation this week to allow the county to opt out of legalizing recreational sales under a one-year sunset provision, that would make it legal after a year unless the legislature votes to continue the ban.

“A one-year window will provide the county the necessary time frame to solicit feedback from experts, law enforcement, and community leaders on the health and safety issues associated with this proposal,” Bellone said in a statement.

Trotta called the move an election-year stalling tactic.

Falkowski said he would instead like to see a public referendum — a simple majority vote.

“These folks that are representing us now were not elected on the platform of where they stand on this issue, and the outcomes could have been different,” he said. “So instead of getting complicated in the politics with it, let’s just let the people speak.”

The entrepreneur said he spoke with Legislator Bridget Fleming last week about police being fearful of how to conduct sobriety tests, how the bill would affect the laws they abide by, and how drug education will be handled.

“Why are we debating this? Why don’t we talk about forming committees, figuring out how we’re going to get money for these programs so we can start addressing these things now?” Falkowski said. “We should have a head start on how to tackle this, because whether it’s legal here or not, it’s going to be legal everywhere around us, so we’re going to be effected anyway.”

Suffolk County’s opt-out proposal was recessed until the Legislature’s next meeting, March 26.

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