Anxiety over a state proposal to legalize recreational marijuana was on full display at a Nassau County hearing Wednesday night, with some fearing threats to public safety and the suburban quality of life, while drug recovery specialists advocated for the expansion of treatment programs.
Legalization of recreational marijuana is backed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and leaders of the Democratic-led State Senate and Assembly. Many of the speakers at legislative chambers in Mineola opposed the state's plan and urged the county to opt out of retail sales if the governor's plan becomes a reality.
More than 200 people crammed into the chambers for the four-hour hearing of the legislature's Health and Social Services Committee. Sentiments from speakers ranged from condemnation of the state’s proposal to concern that bypassing it would do little to erase the inequities that have burdened minorities, who have borne the brunt of marijuana arrests despite studies that show they consume the drug at the same rates as their white counterparts.
Under Cuomo's proposal, counties and cities with more than 100,000 residents can opt out of the program through passage of a local law. Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, has formed a task force to study legalization.
An increasing number of municipalities on Long Island are considering restrictions that would confine marijuana sales to industrial or adult-use zones and away from busy downtowns and residential areas. The Town of North Hempstead has banned retail sales.
“I am 81 years old. I never thought I would see the day that they'd be trying to make this legal. It’s disgusting,” Ann DeMichael of Woodmere said at the hearing.
A number of law enforcement union officials also condemned the plan.
James McDermott, president of the Nassau Police Benevolent Association, said, “Let’s use that opt-out clause if there is one, if it’s a viable option. Children will be able to access marijuana, just as they access cigarettes, if this law is passed."
He said, “This is just going to be one more obstacle that the police department will have to jump over and maneuver in order to get the job done."
Brian Sullivan, president of the Nassau County Sheriff's Correction Officers Benevolent Association, said, “But what’s the ideal, do we give in? . . . What’s next, we’re going to decriminalize hallucinogens, let’s get rid of heroin?”
“Has anyone driven on the Southern State Parkway lately? I drive it every day. All you smell is marijuana from one end . . . to the other," Sullivan said.
Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said, “It’s a challenge for the law enforcement, a challenge that we’ve never seen in my 35 years in law enforcement . . . we’re professionals, we don’t get to choose what side of the picket line we stand, we have to stand on the side of the law.”
Ryder acknowledged later under questioning, “I think I would opt out.”
Jeffrey Reynolds, president and chief executive of the Family and Children’s Association in Mineola, said there are not enough treatment centers for people who frequently smoke pot. He encouraged lawmakers to negotiate for changes to provisions in the governor's proposal as they see fit.
He and advocates of legalization pointed to the impact of criminal drug policies on minorities over the years.
“There’s a social justice end here, that is really, really important, and can't get lost in the conversation . . . we’ve essentially incarcerated an entire generation of black and brown men, particularly in communities proximate to here, in a way that didn’t serve public health, it didn’t reduce drug use, and it cost we the taxpayers a whole bunch of money."
Mary Silberstein, Division Director, Integrated Counseling & Recovery Services at CN Guidance & Counseling in Hicksville, said, "as it stands right now, there is not enough resources available, we can only imagine how our treatment system will be taxed once marijuana is legalized ... We need to invest more in treatment programs in our region."
Doug Greene, legislative director of Empire State NORML, the New York chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, decried what he called "misinformation" from speakers. "You've lost," he said to anyone who thinks legalization can be stopped in New York State.
Matthew Zeidman of New Hyde Park said that opting out of retail sales “could have serious consequences for medical marijuana patients and caregivers,” forcing them to drive long distances for the drug. He said, "quite frankly, Nassau County is broke, and can't afford to turn down a new revenue stream."
As for opting out, county leaders in Nassau and Suffolk have said they are reviewing the governor's proposal and have not staked out a position. A Suffolk County bill in the legislature seeks to opt the county out of pot sales.