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A yes to pot on one condition

Credit: Getty Images/skodonnell

It’s time for New York to legalize adult use of marijuana, but only if safeguards about driving while impaired are incorporated into the legislation.

Some of the reasons why this change is needed have been true for many years: The substance can be less addictive or harmful than legal intoxicants like alcohol. Enforcement of criminal laws about possession has been shamefully disparate, with Black and Hispanic New Yorkers far more likely to face prosecution for weed, despite studies showing similar rates of usage across racial groups.

Then there are the newer, more pragmatic reasons for legalization: Surrounding states like Massachusetts and New Jersey have legalized marijuana, meaning that over-the-counter purchases will be a drive away. That is slowly becoming true in states around the country, although on the federal level marijuana is still ensconced in the criminal code. A handful of new White House staffers recently lost jobs in the Biden administration after acknowledging prior pot use. Public opinion on the subject is changing and the government is tiptoeing toward a legitimacy crisis if something that is so widely embraced or tolerated remains illegal for much longer.

Enter the latest round of legalization negotiations between Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Assembly and Senate. As was the case last year, the broad deal appears to be nearly finalized with lots of tricky compromises hammered out about home growth and how exactly the revenue raised by taxes on this new market will be distributed. But one of the last pieces to fall into place — and most critical on car-dominated Long Island — concerns traffic safety.

Driving under the influence of marijuana must remain a misdemeanor. And this is the tricky part: Drunken driving can be deterred and habitual offenders can be punished because of well-established breathalyzer-style tests that can measure blood alcohol concentration levels at which driving-related skills are impaired. Tests for pot at a roadside stop that can simply ascertain impairment are not available. Oral fluid tests to determine whether cannabis has been ingested are being piloted elsewhere, and they should be used and improved upon in New York once they are deemed workable.

It should be possible for police to charge someone for driving while impaired based on the officers' observations of the condition of the driver, but currently police have to identify the problematic substance from a set list. It's possible for the driver to avoid full responsibility for impaired driving by refusing a test for substances so police can't say what exact substance was in play. This portion of the law should be tweaked.

It is also crucial that police receive advanced training to spot driving while high.

It will take some time to put this new infrastructure for distributing, selling and taxing weed in place, so legalization should be pushed over the finish line now. But the actual date pot becomes legal should be contingent on having an enforcement plan in place.

— The editorial board