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The New York state Capitol in Albany

ALBANY — A group that advocates on behalf of thousands of New York physicians is registering strong opposition to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal to legalize and tax the commercial sale of marijuana in the state.

The Medical Society of the State of New York, contends any revenue the state derives from legalizing marijuana will likely be exceeded by the cost to New York's public health system from increased cannabis use.

"We're particularly concerned that have legalized marijuana for adults, we have seen it also trickled down to youths, and we have seen increased usage in those states by youths," Dr. Bonnie Litvack, the medical society's president, told CNHI.

Litvack said there is also data linking legalized marijuana to increases in suicides, based on toxicology test finding the presence of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, in the remains of those who took their own lives. Research in Colorado, another state where marijuana has been legalized, shows increased usage there associated with an increase in hospital emergency room visits, she said.

"We want to make sure we are thinking of this thoughtfully and that we really are considering all the public health aspects of this before going forward," she said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo tried unsuccessfully to get marijuana passed this year, with lawmakers unwilling to keep the measure in the package of budget bills that were approved in March.

Cuomo said in February he planned to personally visit marijuana stores in states where the drug has been legalized to help New York incorporate the best practices embraced by those states as it constructed its own marijuana regulatory bureaucracy. Those trips never materialized, though, with Cuomo's attention shifting in early March to the coronavirus pandemic.

Cuomo has argued marijuana legalization will yield sorely needed revenue to a state treasury ailing after tax collections shriveled during the business shutdown triggered by the pandemic. While unemployment has been reduced in recent weeks, the rate of statewide joblessness remains significantly higher than where it stood before restrictions were imposed on businesses in mid-March.

A legalization advocate at the statehouse, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston, said highlighting the revenue potential from legal pot is a misguided focus.

"The moment we get into saying, 'Oh, this is about revenue,' I think we are making a big mistake," Cahill said. "Instead, we need to keep the focus on making sure we don't criminalize any more generations of young people and making sure that legal marijuana is affordable and available to people who are responsibly able to access it. Then, I think we will be OK."

Cuomo's marijuana policy advisor, Axel Bernabe, said during an Oct. 19 interview with a representative of Canopy Growth, a Canadian marijuana company whose stock is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, that the Cuomo administration is hoping the legislation is approved in Albany by April 1.

Bernabe stressed the legislation will address public health concerns and "how do you keep it out of the hands of kids, how do you keep people from driving under the influence, all the stuff that we've heard about." The Cuomo aide also said the marijuana measure will address "social equity" concerns.

"I would say equity pervades the entirety of the bill," he said. "It pervades it on the licensing front, it’s on the revenue side and the use of funds and providing capital and loans."

Two states that border New York, Massachusetts and Vermont, and a nearby state, Maine, are among the 11 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have already legalized weed. Voters in another border state, New Jersey, and in three other states, Montana, South Dakota and Arizona will decide on ballot questions Tuesday whether their states should allow the sale of marijuana for adult use.

Cahill said legalization will yield benefits beyond eliminating the threat of criminal sanctions for those who use cannabis.

"By taking it out of the milieu of illegal drugs means we will be diminishing, not increasing, access to other drugs" that are outlawed, Cahill said. "It will make marijuana less of a gateway drug. We are not out to convince people to use marijuana. That is not the purpose. If we focus too much on revenue, then we're going to lose sight of the very reasons why we sought this out in the first place."

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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