ALBANY — Highlighting traffic safety concerns, groups representing parents of school children, public health administrators and police executives launched a drive Thursday aimed at tripping up Gov. Andrew Cuomo's push to legalize recreational marijuana in New York.
The critics said New York is not prepared for the risks that legalization will bring. They argued sheriffs and police departments lack the fleet of drug recogition experts needed to discern whether motorists have been driving under the influence of pot.
John Aresta, chief of Malverne police and the president of the statewide chiefs group, noted that Cuomo has flip-flopped on marijuana, since calling weed a "gateway drug" two years ago.
“In 2017, this was a gateway drug, now in 2019 it’s not?” said Aresta. He noted that most municipal police departments in New York are made up of 15 or fewer cops, and many don't have any officers trained for detecting drug impairment.
Cuomo has repeatedly mentioned marijuana legalization as one of the goals he wants to achieve in the first 100 days of the 2019 legislative session. To do that would mean lawmakers would have to approve the proposal by early April, though Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-New York City) has said more time is needed to review the measure.
Peter Kehoe, the director of the state Sheriffs' Association, said cannabis advocates have been trying to make the case that it is inevitable New York will join the 10 states that have already opted for legalization. But he said his group and its allies are now poised to blitz the statehouse next week, hoping to bring their concerns directly to New York's 213 lawmakers.
He and other police executives contended the proposal will complicate traffic safety enforcement for police.
"Why would we want to introduce another mind-altering substance?" asked Delaware County Sheriff Craig DuMond. "It makes no sense."
Oneida County Sheriff Rob Maciol, the president of the Sheriffs' Association, said support for legalization contradicts the police pledge to protect the public. “People will die as a result of people making the destructive decision of using marijuana,” Maciol said.
Another concern voiced by legalization foes is that it could cause teenagers to take up marijuana, just as many now vape tobacco in violation of age restrictions.
Kyle Belokopitsky, director of the New York State Parent Teachers Association, fought back tears as she recalled how she and her 9-year-old son were on a chair lift at a Massachusetts ski area recently as a pair of 15-year-old boys puffed marijuana in their presence.
'They need to pull this out of the budget," said Belokopitsky, referring to the fact that Cuomo salted the proposal into spending bills slated to be acted on next month.
The Democratic leaders of the state Senate and Assembly have already signaled their support for legalization, while many GOP state senators, including Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, oppose the proposal.
Cuomo staked out his latest position after a study led by Health Commissioner Howard Zucker concluded that the benefits from legalization outweigh the negative consequences.
"We look forward to continued engagement as we refine our proposal to ensure public safety while also addressing the harm done to communities as a result of disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws," said Cuomo spokesman Tyrone Stevens.
Funding for additional drug recognition experts is expected to come from the tax revenue generated from marijuana sales, according to the Cuomo administration.
The governor has argued that marijuana legalization is needed as part of a comprehensive effort to bring fairness to the criminal justice system, insisting that his proposal will curtail "needless and unjust criminal convictions."
A total of 10 states — including neighboring Massachusetts — along with the District of Columbia have already made marijuana use and possession legal.
One significant challenge for those out to derail the legislation is that New York's treasury is desperate for a cash infusion, with Cuomo acknowledging this week that tax receipts are running $2.3 billion behind earlier projections. Meanwhile, his budget proposal projects the state can eventually reap $300 million annually from cannabis taxes.
But Luke Niforatos, policy advisor for Smart Choices to Marijuana, an advocacy group that favors decriminalization but opposes legalization, said projections made in Colorado that allowing regulated pot sales would end the black market proved to be "empty promises."
"Legalization is a profit ploy by Big Tobacco," said Niforatos. He noted that Altria, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, has made substantial investments in marijuana production based on the expectation that more states will approve cannabis sales.
Also registering strong concerns were the New York chapter of the Automobile Association of America (AAA) and the New York State Association of County Health Officials. Sarah Ravenhall, director of the latter group, said county agencies will have to hire more staff to deal with the need for stepped up public awareness and other tasks should New York go forward with recreational marijuana.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .