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Slow down on legalizing marijuana

The New York state substance abuse treatment community has been involved in a high-stakes effort to oppose the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana, and proponents were constantly saying that “it’s a done deal” or that “the train has left the station” so we had better sit at the table or be left out of it once it becomes a reality.

“We believe that New Yorkers deserve more than unmet promises and empty rhetoric around marijuana reform; each day marijuana legalization is not passed, someone is arrested, deported, evicted or loses custody of a child because of criminalization,” said Kassandra Frederique, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

By January of this year, Gov. Cuomo proposed a plan to tax and regulate marijuana as part of the budget for the current fiscal year. However, as the final agreement on the state budget came into form, legalizing marijuana did not make the cut. “Probably the biggest single issue that will not be addressed is the legalization of marijuana,” he told reporters at the Capitol in advance of the vote.

After paying attention to this matter over the last several months, my initial reaction to this news was one of cautious optimism. Major representative organizations such as the New York State Parent Teacher Association, the New York Society of Addiction Medicine, the New York State Sheriffs Association, the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Professionals, Smart Approaches to Marijuana and Bob Ross, in representation of St. Joseph’s Addiction and Recovery Centers, lobbied the legislature to slow what seemed to be a misguided effort to proceed with this fast-track legalization effort.

The failure of attaching the legalization to the budget process represented a major victory for those of us who oppose this idea. We now believe that train has been slowed to a crawl, giving us more time to influence public policy in a more careful and deliberate way.

That does not mean that the efforts to speed the process won’t abate. As an example, the quotation by Mrs. Frederique from the Drug Policy Alliance once again presents a false dichotomy between the issue of criminalization and legalization. These are two separate issues, and to imply that a failure to legalize the recreational use of this drug will lead to more arrests is not a cause and effect assertion. Legalization is not the same as decriminalization.

Now, even though the use of marijuana was officially decriminalized in New York in 1972 and considered to be minor civil offenses or misdemeanors for possession of small amounts of the substance, the historical reality is that law-enforcement agencies have enforced it in discriminatory ways, affecting minority communities in a disproportionate way.

Yet in my opinion, legalizing the recreational use will not do justice to the wrong inflicted by excessive prosecution of marijuana possession throughout decades. In fact, it will disproportionately affect low-income and minority populations more, as it has been found that in other states such as Colorado, the amount of stores peddling cannabis and its derivatives are located mostly in inner-city and economically disadvantaged areas. Outlying suburban and high-income county areas of Denver easily prohibited those establishments through local ordinances.

There are some colleagues in the field who say that being surrounded by states (Massachusetts, Vermont and New Jersey — which recently defeated a legalization proposal) that seem to be barreling towards legalization will put us in a precarious situation and that we had better secure a seat in the table rather than totally deny the “reality” of it.

To them I say that New York could do a much more thoughtful and intelligent approach than the other states where it is legalized, which are already struggling with the negative effects of their misinformed decisions.

While decriminalization should and will be a good start for a new approach to the process, other areas should be considered as well, if and when the state renews its efforts to increase tax revenues by legalizing this third harmful drug.

These may include, but not limited to, increasing the legal age for use to 25 years and not 21, prohibit the marketing of products attractive to youth such as gummy bears and edibles, have clear signs in packages about the deleterious health risks similar to the existing ones for cigarettes, and have acceptable monitoring regulations for producers in order to corroborate professed values of THC, contaminant-free additives and/or insecticides.

Likewise, we need to protect the rights of local, small and rural communities to opt out of allowing smoking dens or stores to open their doors in their communities, develop acceptable and reliable intoxication measurements for driving under the influence, and securing or allocating a part of the taxable revenue from sales of marijuana for substance abuse treatment efforts.

The “legalization train” is losing steam, and the train stops of New York, New Jersey, Vermont and New Hampshire are catching up. Let’s now change the rail destination to one that ensures public health safety, not the profit efforts of the Big Pot industry.

Hector R. Biaggi, M.D., is medical director of St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers in Saranac Lake.