NY police departments express concerns about legalization of cannabis

While dispensaries have not yet opened in New York outside of tribal reservations, local law enforcement officials worry cannabis DUIs could become a real issue

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By Jonathon Wheeler
Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — April 20, otherwise known as 4/20, has become a sort of holiday for people who use cannabis.

Even though cannabis was legalized for adult use in New York last year, dispensaries have not yet opened outside of tribal reservations. This isn't stopping local police departments from expressing their concerns over legalization.

St. Lawrence County Sheriff Brooks J. Bigwarfe said that based on some of the studies he has looked at, he has noted an increase of up to 60% for risk of car crash fatalities involving cannabis use.

"That's one of the main things that the sheriffs of the state are very leery of," Sheriff Bigwarfe said. "That's a big concern, that once this gets going with dispensaries in our area that they're going to consume the marijuana, or smoke the marijuana and then get behind a wheel."

Lowville Police Chief Randy L. Roggie shared this sentiment.

"I think it has the potential to create some issues and I think driving is one of those issues," Chief Roggie said. "Just because it's legal to smoke now and possess doesn't mean it's legal to smoke it and drive a vehicle at that time. So I think there's some potential for that."

There is not yet a field test for marijuana like the breathalyzer test that officers use to detect if someone is under the influence of alcohol. In order to determine if a driver is under the influence of cannabis, the St. Lawrence County Sheriff's Office uses drug recognition experts.

"They have to go to training and be certified to be DREs," Sheriff Bigwarfe said. "They can, with certain tests, tell if someone is under the influence of certain drugs or marijuana."

[RELATED: N.J. governor says he'd consider banning recreational pot for off-duty cops]

Urine or blood tests can be administered by the DREs, who are called to the scene of vehicle crashes if officers on scene think someone may be under the influence of drugs, not just marijuana.

"They're trained in using certain techniques to determine if these individuals are under the influence of these illicit drugs," Sheriff Bigwarfe said. "That's kind of what we can do now for our testing."

St. Lawrence County has two DREs, but is in need of more with cannabis legalization, the sheriff said. He also said that there are times when the DREs are called in when off duty.

"If we have a serious accident, we need to determine if someone's under the influence of these drugs, we'll have to call someone in from off duty do these tests because it's pretty important to determine, especially if it's a serious physical injury accident or fatal," he said.

Sheriff Bigwarfe said that since there are only two DREs, "sometimes that runs into some overtime, which obviously is an expense to the county."

"So, right now, we're looking to train more people in being DRE officers," he added.

Sheriff Bigwarfe also expects to see an increase in black market sales of cannabis products.

"I think you're going to see a developing black market," Sheriff Bigwarfe said. "Just like you have illegal cigarettes out there that people don't want to pay that high tax on, we feel as a sheriff's association, you're going to see a black market explode."

According to a study done by the Center of Alcohol and Substance Use Studies at Rutgers University in October 2019, the black market in California, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2016, was extremely active.

The study results indicate that from 2018 to 2019, 20 tons of marijuana were confiscated from farms; marijuana plants worth $8 million were found in what was thought to be an abandoned warehouse; and more than 100 illegal operations were identified in a town in California. Marijuana-related arrests also increased after marijuana was legalized, the study says.

According to a June 2021 report from The Denver Post, a two-year investigation resulted in what was called "the largest pot bust in Colorado history."

The investigation resulted in 250 homes and businesses being raided with "dozens of people arrested" and more than 80,000 marijuana plants seized along with nearly $2.2 million, gold bars, jewelry and sports cars, the Post reported.

[MORE: Survey: 3,615 officers weigh in on the impact of marijuana legalization on policing]

The Post reported that the data is "complicated."

"Some indicators are up in Colorado: Drug Enforcement Administration busts on indoor grows, for example, as well as marijuana seizures by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service," The Post reported.

"But plenty of other black market marijuana indicators are mixed, at best," the Post continued. "Arrests on marijuana charges have gone up and down since legalization, as have organized crime numbers, according to data soon to be published in the state's biennial 'Impacts of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado' report."

On the flip side, Forbes in May 2020 said the legalization of marijuana may help the economy the same way ending prohibition did after the Great Depression.

Forbes, citing a study from New Frontier Data, said that national legalization in the United States could bring in $128.8 billion in tax revenue and bring in an estimated 1.6 million new jobs.

"Even in a time of economic downturn unprecedented since the Great Depression, cannabis sales remain robust in states where they are legal," Forbes wrote in May 2020.

Forbes wrote that the justice system is backlogged, resulting in plea bargains for lesser charges, which allow for "the courts to clear throngs of cases in one fell swoop."

"Today, this practice is commonplace in our criminal justice system, driven largely by non-violent drug offenses and more than 660,000 marijuana arrests per year," Forbes wrote. "It has gotten so pervasive that today, only 3% of federal drug cases actually go to trial, with the rest being settled through plea bargains rather than a real determination of guilt or innocence."

The Washington Post reported in September that there were an estimated 321,000 Americans working full time in the legal cannabis industry, higher than the country's dentists, paramedics and electrical engineers.

Chief Roggie said he doesn't see any upside to the legalization of cannabis in New York.

Sheriff Bigwarfe said he's all for freedom of individuals, but against what legalizing marijuana could lead to, and that he believes there are some potentially dangerous scenarios for St. Lawrence County.

"The crime is going to increase, the safety of citizens on the roadways is going to decrease, using this drug could lead to harder drugs, and the black market crime that's going to increase because of those things," he said. "Because of those things, that's where I think ... it could be potentially dangerous for the citizens of St. Lawrence County."

Sheriff Bigwarfe said through seminars and in meetings with the state Sheriff's Association, New York law enforcement officials have contacted other states to collect data and feedback.

"One of our mission bullet points is to keep all of the citizens of St. Lawrence County safe," Sheriff Bigwarfe said. "And this really gives me pause that people are going to get hurt or, regretfully, even killed, and I think we need to get ahead of some narrative or discussion that tells people even though they think they can drive, they're not under the influence of marijuana. 'It's not a big deal, I can drive just as well, you know, it's not like alcohol.' Well it is ... The studies will show you that your ability to drive is hindered by marijuana use and even though you think you aren't influenced, you are."

On Friday, Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul announced that the Cannabis Control Board approved 52 Adult-use Cannabis Conditional Cultivator Licenses across the state. These are the first adult-use cannabis licenses granted in New York and they advance the Seeding Opportunity Initiative, according to a news release.

Under the Seeding Opportunity Initiative, these initial equity-entrepreneur, retail owners must meet two prongs of eligibility to qualify. First, they must have a cannabis-related conviction that occurred prior to legalization last year, or had a parent, guardian, child, spouse or dependent with a pre-legalization cannabis-related conviction in New York. Second, they must also have experience owning and operating a successful business in the state.

The approved licenses are from a pool of more than 150 applications submitted to the Office of Cannabis Management, following the March 15 opening of the online application portal. OCM will continue to review applications on a rolling basis to get them to the Cannabis Control Board for approval.

It is still unclear when the state will see the first dispensary outside of reservations open to customers.

Signed into law by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in March last year, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act legalized recreational marijuana sales and use for adults 21 and older. It immediately expunged previous marijuana-related convictions from New Yorkers' records and established a framework for regulating businesses.

Cities, towns and villages across the state could decide to opt out of allowing dispensaries by passing a local law by Dec. 31, though municipalities then forego tax revenue generated from shops within their boundaries.

A total 13% cannabis excise tax will apply when dispensary sales begin. The tax breaks down to 1% for the county, 3% for the dispensary's municipality and 9% for the state.

The 9% state portion will subsidize the Office of Cannabis Management and help cover costs for state agencies to apply the law and adapt to legalization. After administrative costs are covered, the state's remaining revenue from its 9% share will be split among three state funds: 40% for the Community Grants Reinvestment Fund, 40% for general education through the Lottery Fund and 20% for the Drug Treatment and Public Education Fund.

Local governments spent a fair amount of time in 2021 weighing whether to allow marijuana dispensaries within their boundaries.

The Watertown City Council adopted the opt-out option in August, but a petition was circulated in an attempt to garner enough signatures to force the city to hold a voter referendum on the matter. The petition required 593 valid signatures, and 736 signatures were obtained.

City Clerk Ann M. Saunders determined that only 491 out of the 736 signatures were signed by eligible city voters. After what she called "a careful and thorough examination of signatures," she concluded that 162 of the signatures were not by people registered to vote in city elections. Another 83 signatures also did not qualify for various other reasons, she found.

Town of Lyme residents voted in a referendum, with the measure to allow dispensaries defeated by just two votes, 277-275. According to the SUNY Rockefeller Institute of Government, the Jefferson County villages of Antwerp, Carthage, Ellisburg, Evans Mills, Glen Park, Mannsville, Sackets Harbor, Theresa and West Carthage have agreed to allow dispensaries, along with the towns of Lorraine, Orleans, Pamelia and Rutland.

The town of Leyden and village of Lyons Falls in Lewis County decided to allow marijuana-oriented businesses, according to the Rockefeller data. More than half of St. Lawrence County's municipalities decided to allow businesses, including the towns of Canton, Edwards, Fine, Gouverneur, Hermon, Lawrence, Lisbon, Louisville, Macomb, Massena, Morristown, Oswegatchie and Stockholm, along with the villages of Potsdam and Rensselaer Falls and the city of Ogdensburg.

(c)2022 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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