Suffolk Takes A Stand on Pot

Suffolk County is weighing the possibility of opting out of allowing the recreational sale of marijuana if New York State goes ahead with legalization.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has backed the potential legalization of pot as a revenue generator for the state, but county elected officials, calling it a “gateway drug,” are looking to take advantage of a provision in the proposed state law that would allow local municipalities to opt out of allowing sale of marijuana, although possession would still be legal if recreational marijuana were legalized statewide.

Suffolk County Legislator Robert Trotta, a former police officer, introduced a bill now before the county legislature that would opt out of statewide legalization. It was the subject of much public criticism at two public hearings, in Hauppauge on Feb. 26 and in Riverhead on March 5, and was due to be taken up by the legislature again on March 26, as The Beacon was going to press.

In the meantime, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has pitched a one-year moratorium on growing and selling marijuana in the county.

“A one-year window will provide the county the necessary time frame to solicit feedback from experts, law enforcement, and community leaders on the health and safety issues associated with this proposal,” said Mr. Bellone in a statement.

Governor Cuomo touted legalization of marijuana in his State of the State address in January, but in late March withdrew $300 million in revenue projections from taxes associated with legal marijuana sales over the next three years from his proposed state budget, saying he wasn’t sure if the state legislature would come to consensus over legalization in the current legislative session, which ends in June.

At the March 5 hearing in Riverhead, farmer David Falkowski of Open Minded Organics in Bridgehampton,told county legislators that he believes Suffolk County should put whether or not to opt out of pot sales up to a public referendum.

He added that, if the county opts out, “it would have no bearing on the Shinnecock and Poospatuck nations, making them our de facto cannabis dispensaries.”

Ron Gibbons said the federal lawmakers who classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug in 1970, usually reserved for the most dangerous drugs, “had to be stoned when they wrote that. It’s the most ridiculous thing.”

Susan Reeve, who grew up in Riverhead, will soon have knee replacement surgery, and she said she’s been smoking pot for 40 years. She said it helps her with numerous issues with pain.

“I’m not on painkillers and opiates because I smoke weed,” she said. “I smoke it, and you’re not going to stop me. If you think you are, put the cuffs on now and drag me out of here.”

Mr. Trotta, the legislator who introduced the bill, asked Ms. Reeve if she would buy marijuana from a dispensary if it cost more than three times what it costs on the street.

“I would buy the cheaper stuff,” she said.

“ff I have to pay a little more so I know I’m getting something that’s of good quality, then I would be willing to do that, Mr. Trotta,” said Mary Mulcahy of Greenport. “The idea that pot is a gateway drug is specious. Alcohol is the gateway drug.”

She added that she believes the “demonization of pot in the early 20th Century was racist and ignorant.”

“As drugs go, marijuana is probably one of the most benign,” she said.

Legislator William Spencer pointed out research that showed that, in 1995, marijuana contained 4 percent of the chemical compound THC, which causes the high, while pot being grown now is about 99 percent THC.

“Do you think that has any impact whatsoever on the safety of it?” he asked.

Ms. Mulcahy said people who sell pot tell their customers how potent it is.

“I think regulating it makes sense, because you have purity controls , which you don’t have now,” she said.

Angela Hunault of Riverside said she doesn’t want to see sale of marijuana legalized here.

“I have watched, in front of my eyes, numerous people with impaired memory because of this. Their coordination is off and it causes hallucinations,” she said. “I speak to many people who have come to me, who have done rehab, gotten themselves off heroin and they’ll say it didn’t start with drinking. It was marijuana.”

Cutchogue attorney Abigail Field said she believes marijuana should be legalized and local governments should be given control over where and when it should be sold.

“I would like my local pot shop to service the local market,” she said. “Maybe it shouldn’t be open late at night.”

“Part of the problem I have talking to my children is having a sensible conversation about ‘relative harm,’ when there’s a liquor store in every shopping center but marijuana is relegated to industrial zones. Kids spot hypocrisy really quick.”

“I would tell Southold I want it in retail shopping centers,” she added. “You either believe in it or not, and if you do you have to allow it in your backward.

Legislator Susan Burland, who has four kids, asked Ms. Field how she reconciles the hypocrisy if pot goes from being illegal to illegal in the space of a couple weeks.

“I say to my children that the legal policy caught up with reality, because of misclassification,” said Ms. Field. “I’d tell my kids ‘you’re too young to use it. It’s not good for your brain.’ I take my kids seriously as people and we engage in real discussion and debate… A responsible conversation doesn’t pretend it’s not a vice.”

James Tran, a Ph.D. candidate in molecular pharmacology at the Warren Alpert School of Addiction in Rhode Island, said that “criminals have increased the THC in these plants. This is an effect of prohibition. We’re putting billions of dollars into the pockets of organized crime. We’re only hurting ourselves and helping criminals. We only need to look at how alcohol prohibition turned out to know this. Liquor was not as popular before prohibition. It was mostly wine and beer.”

He added that most people become addicted to drugs as a form of self-medication due to underlying untreated mental health disorders.

He recommended that strains of marijuana with more than 12 percent THC content not be allowed for legal use.

Susan Scirra, the mother of three children and one stepson, said her oldest son, 32, and a 28-year-old stepson have had long histories of drug use. Her eldest, she said, lives in California and she believes he is schizophrenic in addition to being a marijuana grower. She said her stepson is in the county jail because he is a heroin addict.

Both young men, she said, began using illegal drugs by smoking pot. 

She added that many of both men’s friends have died due to opioid overdoses.

“They were all potheads,” she said. “I never in a million years thought I would bury so many children. Most of them started with marijuana.”

Former California resident Moses Berton said he believed much misinformation had been disseminated at the hearing. He urged the legislature to hold a public referendum.

He said that, when marijuana was legalized in California, prices didn’t go up and the crime rate went down, and opioid use also decreased.

“It seems like you guys need to do a lot more research,” he said. “Almost everywhere taxpayers are given the option, they vote for recreational.”

The legislature closed the public hearing after hearing more comment at its March 26 session in Hauppauge.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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