Some Long Islanders spoke passionately about the benefits of marijuana, while others warned of potential risks such as youth access at a listening session Thursday at Hofstra University to gather community input about the possible state legalization of recreational marijuana.

Ruthanne McCormack a project coordinator for the Rockville Centre Coalition for Youth, described marijuana as a “gateway drug for youth.”

“More stoned people do not help society,” she said. “Today’s marijuana is much more potent than in the past.”

But Evan Miller said that rather being a gateway drug, marijuana was an “exit drug that helps people get off opiates” and that it shouldn’t be a federal schedule 1 drug classified with heroin.

Attendees at Thursday’s session echoed the results of a recent poll commissioned by South Nassau Communities Hospital, which found that about half of the 600 people surveyed in the metropolitan area favor legalization.

The overarching message of most speakers, regardless of their stance on legalization, was that the state should proceed carefully with the exploration process.

“Cigarettes and alcohol are sold in every corner store,” Ed Mesa said, though they are associated with health risks. Marijuana, meanwhile, is “all hugs, all love, all family, all day. New York, Hempstead, this is the place. We need to do this progressively and the right way.”

Hundreds of people turned out for the session, one of 15 planned across New York to field community input about draft marijuana legislation for the State Legislature to consider in its upcoming session. It was the only one scheduled for Nassau County.

The listening sessions are the latest in a series of steps taken by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to research legalizing marijuana. In January, Cuomo tasked the Department of Health with assessing the impact of a regulated marijuana market in New York. The study, which was completed in July, found that “the positive effects of a regulated marijuana market in New York State outweigh the potential negative impacts.”

In early August, Cuomo created a working group to draft legislation while considering factors such as the impact of legalized marijuana on public health, criminal justice and state revenue.

Jeff Reynolds, CEO of Mineola-based Family and Children’s Association of Long Island, is one of the working group’s 20 members. He said before the hearing that the working group is proceeding carefully in assessing the potential risks of legalized marijuana.

“New York State is certainly not a first mover in this regard, and given the magnitude of this shift [to recreational marijuana], you don’t want to be first out of the gate,” Reynolds said. “Even if you’re for this, nobody wants to see this turn into a horror show.”

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