Push to legalize pot comes down to wire as Albany winds down legislative sessionPosted: Updated:
The push to legalize recreational marijuana in New York state is coming down to the wire as Albany is winding down the legislative session in just two weeks.
If New York legalizes recreational marijuana, it would follow Illinois as the 12th state in the nation to do so. But the battle is complicated because hot-button issues like public safety, race in the criminal justice system and addiction must be examined.
Jeffery Veatch, of Yorktown, blames marijuana in part for killing his teenage son.
"Justin, he was 17, he snorted heroin. But I have to say it all began with marijuana when he was 14, and we never know how a young person is going to react to marijuana," he says.
That's why Veatch is one of the leading voices against legalizing pot.
"I believe approving marijuana for recreational use in New York or any other state is like inviting the kids to the party because they are going to take advantage of it and they're going to get a hold of it," he says.
Most police chiefs in the state say they also oppose the move, saying they need state guidelines on how to measure THC, the compound in marijuana that makes someone high.
Chief Paul Oliva, of the Mount Pleasant Police Department, says from a public safety standpoint, there's no roadside test for THC. Oliva says it will complicate enforcement of drugged driving.
Oliva says there's no reason to rush legislation until more research can be done on the positive or negative impact to communities.
Kathy Kaufman says she has done plenty of research on that, and sees the issue through a different lens – one of race and criminal justice.
"Two-point-four million New Yorkers used marijuana in the past year. One-point-six million used marijuana in the last month. And if you're having an honest conversation with young people, the drug is completely accessible under the current regime," she says.
Kaufman wrote a report on marijuana arrests and enforcement in Westchester County for a nonprofit focused on drug policy reform. She's become a staunch supporter of legalization because she believes, for generations, the current laws have unfairly targeted communities of color.
"Even though white, black and Hispanic people use marijuana at exactly the same rates, black people are arrested at 17 times the rate of white people in Westchester County. Hispanics are arrested at five times the rate of white people. They are primarily young. That criminal record will change their prospects forever," she says.
Most New Yorkers favor small amounts of pot for legal personal use. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 61% of suburban residents support legalization.
Earlier this year, there was no bigger proponent of legalization than Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
"Legalize adult-use cannabis, stop disproportionate impact on communities of color," he said.
The governor laid out an extensive plan to regulate a recreational weed industry, tax it and spread the proposed $300 million tax windfall around the state. But his plan faced roadblocks when Democratic lawmakers stripped the proposal out of the budget.
State lawmakers say the path of recreational legalization is fraught with landmines.
"I'm working on passing it this year but there has been tons of opposition. But I think we have to focus on the facts," says Sen. David Carlucci.
There seems to be no consensus on the core principles of the legislation. To complicate matters more, the biggest counties around New York City are not waiting for the state to decide. The leaders of Nassau, Suffolk, Rockland and Putnam counties have all decided to opt out, meaning if recreational marijuana becomes legal statewide, they don't want it grown or sold in their communities. Westchester County is the only one that is undecided.