Where there’s smoke: Marijuana a hot topic in Albany and beyond - BlueStone Press
May 26, 2019

Where there’s smoke: Marijuana a hot topic in Albany and beyond

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On Jan. 6, Rosendale resident Vance Riley called the fire department at 6:30 in the morning because his chimney was on fire. The fire was extinguished without damage or injury, but firefighters spotted an indoor marijuana growth in progress and called in the Rosendale police, and soon the Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement and Narcotics Team (URGENT) was involved. A warrant was obtained, and the ensuing search located about 12 pounds of marijuana, growing equipment, packaging material and records, a rifle and shotgun. Riley was remanded to the Ulster County Jail without bail, charged with the felony of Criminal Possession of Marihuana in the First Degree, the misdemeanor of Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Fourth Degree and the violation of Unlawfully Growing Cannabis.

Although no proposal currently under consideration in any state would legalize possession of 12 pounds, observers on social media scoffed and sympathized with Riley. About three weeks earlier, after all, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had rolled out some details on a proposal to reform New York’s marijuana laws as part of his 2019 budget proposal, which would make New York the second state, after Vermont, to legalize recreational cannabis by legislative action. A double handful of other states, including neighboring Massachusetts, have legalized the weed through ballot initiative.

Cuomo’s proposal would liberalize the current medical marijuana law by allowing qualifying patients to grow up to four plants for their own use. (PharmaCann executive Jeremy Unruh, whose company is one of 10 medical marijuana companies licensed by the state, strongly disapproves.) The plan would also abolish the list of specific qualifying conditions and allow prescribers to exercise clinical discretion about which patients might benefit from cannabis. There are currently 87,855 certified medical cannabis patients in the state.

Recreational marijuana would be legalized for adults 21 and over, all marijuana offenses in a person’s past would be sealed, and taxes applied on producers, wholesalers and retailers, adding up to what Cuomo is hoping will be $300 million in revenue.

As the 2019 legislative season unfolds, Albany has become the scene of a pitched battle. Law enforcement sources cite traffic statistics from Colorado that can be read as a large increase in marijuana-related traffic fatalities, public health and youth advocates cite studies that indicate impacts on brain development and mental health from cannabis consumption, and advocates cite still other studies that indicate benefits such as lower rates of opioid use.

Ulster County District Attorney Holley Carnright is not a fan. “I think the way we deal with it right now is sensible,” he says. “It’s pretty much decriminalized. No one is going to prison just for marijuana. I think there’s been one guy since I’ve been in office, and it was his third or fourth bust for growing. Very seldom is there a jail component, but legalization brings in a whole other set of variables.”

Carnright finds the impaired driving statistics out of Colorado “very frightening,” joining a chorus that includes the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, the state sheriff’s association, and various elected officials. What the statistics actually are is hard to pin down; law enforcement sources cite increases over 100 percent, while advocates point to a failure to separate correlation and causation, among other flaws; one study that controlled for a wider bunch of variables found that the increases were unlikely to be a direct result of recreational legalization.

Carnright finds the idea of increasing access to an intoxicant in order to raise tax dollars distasteful. “The politicians are making a money grab at the expense of the people they represent,” he says. “What are you going to say to a 13-year-old who’s headed to a party and tells you they plan on trying pot because it’s legal? And I doubt you can ever find a doctor who doesn’t admit it increases the risk of psychosis. But hey, we can make money, so go ahead? It’s wrong.”

Carnright says he is unsure of the current charges against Riley; a call to the jail on deadline day indicated that he had been released. “I know there was initially a felony involved,” he says. “I’m not sure what the status is right now.”

The debate in Albany has drawn the focused attention of one Kevin Sabet, formerly a drug policy official in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, whose Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) nonprofit was founded with Sen. Patrick Kennedy in 2013. SAM fights the liberalization of marijuana laws wherever it is proposed; a New York chapter has been opened and is arguing ferociously for a “third way” approach that would involve imposing civil penalties and mandated counseling on people caught with small quantities. For the New York audience, Sabet is focusing heavily on comparing Big Marijuana to Big Tobacco and suggesting that New Yorkers are falling for the same old corporate hype that has left trails of alcohol, tobacco and pharma addicts in its wake. Sabet, whose organization focuses solely on marijuana (aside from a brief foray into a battle over MDMA), has said that he believes cannabis, in comparison to alcohol, to be incompatible with U.S. cultural traditions and believes that the only legal medical use should be in the form of FDA-approved prescription pills.

Carnright says that medical marijuana has absolutely no connection to his work and no effect on it. He’s not planning to run again, and is willing to concede that his opinions “may just be those of an older guy.”

Newly elected Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa could not be reached for comment, but he told the media in the past that he does not consider marijuana enforcement a priority.

Rosendale police chief Perry Soule says it’s not really up to him to have an opinion one way or the other. “We just hope it doesn’t create public safety issues,” he says. “So many things are changing all the time; it wasn’t that long ago that no one knew what a cell phone was. We respond as we go along. Obviously, we’d be dead set against the availability of opioids without a prescription. The problem we have right now with opioids and with fentanyl is bad – 100 overdoses and 20 fatalities is way too many – and we don’t know how to fix that except by trying to get rid of the dealers. That and education.”

Soule says there are practical issues yet to unfold. “Every time there’s some kind of change, we have to look at how it affects us. We used to take ink fingerprints, now they have to be digital, and the equipment costs thousands. The drug drop box is a great program; it gets full, but then we have to pay for disposal. It’s one unfunded mandate after another.”

Breathalyzer-type devices that can ascertain whether a driver has smoked in the previous four to six hours are available to the public for around $10 apiece, but none have been approved as yet for law enforcement use. Other tests that reveal the presence of THC can confuse the issue, since the molecules linger in the human body for as long as a month, long after the intoxicating effects have passed.

Soule, like Carnright, is unsure about what has happened or will happen to Vance Riley. “We had one officer there, but that wasn’t really us, it was the sheriff’s thing,” he says. “We do make arrests for possession, obviously ... again, it’s not up to us to judge.” Initial speculation on the street was that Riley had faced a serious weapons charge because of a prior conviction that made it illegal for him to possess the firearms; Carnright was unable to verify this or to say whether or not a felony charge of any type was still in play.

Meanwhile, in Ellenville, a February traffic stop conducted by an Ulster County sheriff resulted in the arrest of Thaddeus A. Fotos-Auterino, 20. Fotos-Auterino was found to be in possession of over 2 ounces of cannabis, charged with the misdemeanor of Criminal Possession of Marihuana in the Fourth Degree, and issued an appearance ticket to return to the Ellenville Town Court.

Twenty-four states considered legalizing the adult use of marijuana in 2018, with widely varying results. The World Health Organization has recommended cannabis be “descheduled,” clearing the way for international reform if the recommendation passes a March 19 vote; and meanwhile, the federal Food and Drug Administration is cracking down on edible products containing the non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD. And as recently as Feb. 3 , Cuomo has expressed determination to stay the course.

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