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N.Y.’s marijuana law has a major enforcement loophole, police chief says

A Q&A with Chief Joseph Sinagra about legal cannabis enforcement in New York state


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By Andres Rendon

ALBANY, N.Y. — Possessing and consuming cannabis is now legal for those 21 and older, but there’s still confusion over what to do with the under-21 crowd.

Saugerties Police Chief Joseph Sinagra is concerned that the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act passed last year has loopholes regarding under-21 enforcement, and says that the state does not give police the authority to handle these violations. He’d like to see a cannabis version of the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control legislation, which lists punishments for underage individuals caught with alcohol with the intent to consume.

Sinagra has ordered his department not to seize any cannabis from individuals under 21, stating “there is currently no mechanism in place to enforce against mere possession in small amounts” for that age group.

Sinagra spoke with NY Cannabis Insider about his concerns, suggestions and conversations with the OCM so far on the topic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NY Cannabis Insider: How often are minors caught with marijuana that there is a need for more guidelines?

Sinagra: We see it all the time. When I was in junior high, I consumed. I’m 57 years old, it never changed. When we’re on foot patrol, we come across an alley or you walk through one of the parks, and you smell cannabis burning, you turn around and it’s a group of teenagers. In the past, under the old marijuana law, we were able to issue a ticket and take the marijuana from you. Under the new cannabis legislation, we don’t have the ability to do that anymore unless you possess more than three ounces.

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If a parent was having trouble with their kids doing drugs like weed, prior to the new cannabis legislation, we could refer parents to a probation intake, and the person gets put on something called a PINS, a person in need of supervision. A parent, police officer, and even school district who finds a child in possession or consuming cannabis can file to have them in a PINS. When they made the new cannabis legislation, they repealed the PINS section that addressed cannabis. I don’t know why. I think if we’re here to protect our youth, PINS is a good thing.

What would you like to see in the new cannabis legislation or town codes regarding enforcement for violators under 21?

What I’m looking for, really, is for the state to take Alcohol Beverage Control legislation and let’s just mirror it, so where it says ‘alcohol’ you just put cannabis instead. That covers all the legalities of an individual who’s less than 21 possessing. Obviously, that was never the intent for the Office of Cannabis Management to allow a person less than 21 years of age to possess and consume.

I think where they get hung up is that under the Office of Cannabis Management, a person who is less than 21 years of age and who is found in possession is in violation of a civil section. We only enforce criminal violations. The question that has yet to be answered is ‘who is going to enforce the civil offense?’

Is there any way that a police officer can enforce this civil offense?

The Office of Cannabis Management has an enforcement unit that will be established. The question is, how will it work? Do we say ‘hey, we found this person in possession,’ and they come down and they can wage a fine? Are they going to send people out or is it something in the law that really isn’t enforceable?

Under the ABC law, it gives a definition of a police officer and their jurisdiction, and it gives police the authority to issue a ticket and take the alcohol legally. The cannabis law doesn’t give us anything. We can’t take away cannabis from someone who is under 21, even if they’re within the legal limit of three ounces or less, because the law doesn’t say we can.

Do you think New York State should have taken more measures and waited longer before passing the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act?

Yes. I think, at the end of the day, politics played a major part in the passing of this legislation, prior to really sitting down and making sure they had all the answers to all the questions. I think that was done because at the time the election was coming up, and former Governor Cuomo was looking to get re-elected. The people wanted, for the most part, the legalization of cannabis. But we did it so expeditiously that we ignored common sense.

Are there any updates in trying to get new legislation will address these loopholes?

I’m still looking for the legislation. I’ve gotten some leeway and acknowledgment from representatives that they have reviewed the law and they agree that there’s a loophole. I’ve even spoken to the Cannabis Control Board as late as last week, and they too agree. The legislation wasn’t intended to have a loophole, but the loophole does exist.

I had a really good conversation with Senator Sander’s office, and they listened to me, they get it, and they understand it. I’m starting to get more and more representatives that are saying ‘we need to look into this.’ It’s not just my assumption.

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