Vale Lewis / Sun Staff Writer

City officials and experts discussed the legalization of weed in Monday's panel.

April 30, 2019

Sheriff, District Attorney Weigh In on Legalizing Recreational Marijuana

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Though Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D-N.Y.) proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in New York was dropped from the state budget last month, discussions about the drug continue in Tompkins County.

On Monday, the League of Women Voters of Tompkins County hosted a panel of local leaders to present the implications of legalizing marijuana and answer audience questions.

Jim Sharp, director emeritus of the Van Dyke Addiction Treatment Center, began with a speech  illustrating that “in regards to marijuana, there’s a lot we don’t know” — including how many people are addicted to the drug and how many people die each year by overdose on marijuana.

He said that one of the most important factors in the legalization of recreational marijuana will be the accompanying regulations. Sharp pointed to similar regulations regarding increased taxation on alcohol and education about tobacco use, which have resulted in decreased consumption rates of these substances.

“Regulations can strongly impact how a drug is used and how it is abused,” Sharp said. “Should we go to legalization, regulations are very important. The devil will be in the details.”

Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne expressed some concerns about the legalization of marijuana in regards to public safety and law enforcement capabilities — especially the potential for more impaired drivers on local roads, and the difficulties it could create for law enforcement.

Unlike a breathalyzer test — which can immediately tell officers if a driver is under the influence of alcohol — no such test exists for marijuana intoxication, which requires a blood test, he said.

“The concern with that also is the blood test will show the person has THC in their system, but there’s no way to prove per se that the person is actually impaired at that time because THC is always going to be in their system if they’re a frequent user,” Osborne said.

Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten also raised similar concerns regarding the ability of law enforcement to use marijuana as probable cause to further investigate a suspect.

“Usually if there’s a smell of marijuana, that is traditionally the basis to inquire whether the person is doing anything else illegal, and if marijuana use is legal … that will affect some ability to find other violations of the law,” he said.

Nellie Brown, director of workplace health and safety programs in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, outlined the problems that legalization of marijuana could pose to private employers who must decide when marijuana use would be considered an impediment to work.

“I see this as a really big mess for the workplace,” she said. “The science is not there enough to be able to do the kinds of measurements that we would like to see. How do we measure impairment? It’s a huge area we don’t know much about.”

However, William Klepack, medical director of the Tompkins County Health Department, pointed to several positives the legalization of marijuana could bring to the state.

The doctor expressed that legalization would make it harder for young people to access the drug, dosing could become more regulated and incarceration rates could decrease, for example.

“[Legalization] would set a regulatory framework for the growing wholesale and retail sales of THC. It would set up a process, most importantly, of citizen input to all important creations of rules and regulations,” he said.

While the question of the legalization of recreational marijuana seems to be off the table for the time being, several panelists expressed a belief that the legislation is inevitable.

“I don’t think this is a debate about whether or not this should happen. I think it’s coming regardless of what side of the issue we fall on, so as sheriff, what’s important to me is how we work with this to make sure that people aren’t impacted negatively,” Osborne said.