Legal pot coming soon across two borders
Colorado and Washington did it in 2012. Massachusetts and Maine did it last year. Canada and Vermont are doing it this summer.
What will it mean for New Yorkers when recreational marijuana is legalized across the border, and how likely is it that it will be legalized here?
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott announced last week that he will sign a bill passed by both legislative houses legalizing marijuana, but he appears to be waiting to hear the recommendations of a commission launched last June to look into the ramifications of legalization. That report was due Tuesday, but as of press time had not been finalized. If, or when, Scott signs the bill into law, Vermont will become the first state to legalize marijuana use by legislation rather than referendum.
Canada’s new marijuana law will go into effect this summer, according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, legalizing recreational pot use at the same age as legal drinking in each province.
“Don’t bring it back”
Aaron Bowker, of the office of field operations with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said border officials are always on the lookout for any kind of contraband, and that’s not going to change.
“We have a zero tolerance policy for illegal drugs,” said Bowker. “If you go up to Canada to use marijuana recreationally, don’t bring it back, and make sure you’re not driving impaired.”
Inside the state, police need reasonable suspicion to search your vehicle, but border search authority “is pretty broad,” said Bowker. “Every vehicle is subject to search without a warrant.”
Border and Customs personnel talk to thousands of people a day, said Bowker.
During interviews and assessments of a vehicle and its passengers, agents are building a picture, he said. The pieces of that picture add up, and if they add up a certain way, agents are authorized to conduct a search of your person.
Bowker said USCBP will do public outreach as Canada’s legalization gets closer. “We don’t want to have to arrest people,” he said.
Fines for pot possession at the border start at $500 and go up, said Bowker.
Vermont’s law won’t affect USCBP because the agency enforces federal law, and as far as the feds are concerned, marijuana is illegal.
Tupper Lake village police Chief Eric Proulx said people who live close to the Vermont border will probably cross over to buy pot if it’s cheaper there, but “for people up here, I don’t see it being worth it to pay for the ferry to go to Burlington. I’m not sure how many people would spend the money.”
More arrests in New York
A study on Washington and Colorado’s border states, published in August 2017 at the University of Washington (Hao/Cowan), found: “Though the fiscal impacts of marijuana legalization may be positive in states that pass recreational marijuana laws, the effect on surrounding states is more likely to be detrimental.”
That study found arrests for pot possession increased by 20 to 30 percent in bordering counties. The effect dissipated as they looked farther from the border, suggesting that pot users were more likely to drive across the border to buy it as long as they weren’t spending the money they saved on the gas to get there.
A number of articles about the effect on neighboring states of marijuana legalization have found that while arrests for marijuana possession increase, other crimes tend to decrease.
In November 2017 by the Economic Journal released a study looking at decriminalization in states bordering Mexico: “The introduction of medical marijuana laws (MMLs) leads to a decrease in violent crime in states that border Mexico. The reduction in crime is strongest for counties close to the border (less than 350 kilometers) and for crimes that relate to drug trafficking. In addition, we find that MMLs in inland states lead to a reduction in crime in the nearest border state. Our results are consistent with the theory that decriminalization of the production and distribution of marijuana leads to a reduction in violent crime in markets that are traditionally controlled by Mexican drug trafficking organizations.”
Legal in New York?
Along with Massachusetts, which is still working out the details of pot sale and distribution, state governments implementing new laws are finding the devil in the details. Among their findings so far: Legalization makes pot cheaper, and governments save the money they would have spent arresting and locking up nonviolent stoners. States also make money on legal pot through taxes and licensing fees.
New York has very limited legal medical marijuana use and only one state legislator working toward legalization of recreational use — Sen. Liz Krueger, 26th District (Manhattan East Side), who introduced a bill Jan. 4 that would place marijuana on par with alcohol. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried has sponsored bills in the past but has yet to introduce a legalization measure this session.
In terms of public safety, a number of concerns remain: If drivers are impaired by marijuana, law enforcement lacks adequate tools to measure that impairment. What happens to K-9 units? In Colorado, police departments have phased out dogs sensitive to the smell of pot, or risked having search warrants triggered by the dogs vacated.
“My experience is people on marijuana aren’t generally combative, unless they’re mixing it with alcohol,” said Proulx. “But put them behind a wheel, and they’re a weapon.”
When Vermont’s legislature initially passed the marijuana law last summer, Scott sent it back for a reboot with stronger protections for children and a means of measuring driving while stoned. The bill now has stiffer penalties for driving while impaired, but there is no “breathalyzer” for pot. While marijuana’s presence in the body can be detected — for instance, through urinalysis — that does not give an accurate measure of how it’s affecting the user’s mental or physical alertness. The new bill also adds penalties for providing pot to children, smoking in cars with children and selling pot in school zones.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for the creation of a commission to study the implications of legal recreational marijuana in this state.
New York’s 2014 limited medical marijuana law, originally projected to bring the state $4 million in excise taxes, brings in something closer to $1 million. Neighboring Massachusetts expects between $44 million and $82 million in taxes in its first year of legal pot. Colorado projects $247 million from fees and taxes on pot for fiscal 2017.
Although U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vowed to enforce federal laws even in states where pot is legal, a number of state legislators are now calling on Congress to pass a law protecting those states.