MAHOPAC, N.Y. - State Sen. Pete Harckham held a public forum on recreational marijuana legalization that drew a crowd of dozens on Friday evening (March 8) at Mahopac High School. At least 60 people attended the two-hour event, including Assemblyman Kevin Byrne, who joined Harckham on stage to listen to public sentiment on the issue and take questions.

Harckham, who represents the 40th Senate District, is chair of the Senate Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse.

The feedback at the forum ranged from full support for legalization to complete opposition. Comments came from elected officials, stakeholder organizations, medical professionals, former marijuana smokers, law enforcement, students and other concerned members of the community.

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A majority of commenters asked for the issue to be fully examined by the legislature rather than voted in through the state budget.

“The wide-ranging feedback we received on the proposed legalization demonstrates the complexity of the issue,” Harckham said. “Towns are concerned about increased costs of law enforcement if the measure is enacted, while schools and some parents worry about the impact on adolescents and teenagers whose brains are still developing. A good number of smaller town officials would like to have an opt-out provision so that their towns can make the decision on what’s best for their community.”

Attendees/commenters included Putnam County District Attorney Bob Tendy; Paul Oliva, president of the Westchester Police Chiefs Association; Lewisboro Supervisor Peter Parsons; Roger Green, executive director of the Hudson Valley chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML); Peekskill Common Council’s Vanessa Agudelo; and Yorktown Supervisor Ilan Gilbert.

Owners of medical marijuana dispensaries also commented and gave assurance that their businesses would continue to focus on those with medical prescriptions. They asked for protection of their business model, concerned that the major tobacco and alcohol industry players would attempt to corner the market if recreational marijuana is legalized.

“I’m concerned that the medicinal end of it will get eaten up by the recreation end; we need to keep it separated,” said Warren McReddie, a physician/patient outreach specialist at PharmaCannis, a medical marijuana dispensary. “We need to work on it so it’s less taxed on the medical end.”

McReddie noted that the psychological addiction rate on medical cannabis is about 6 percent, but that the addiction rate for cell phones is about 60 to 70 percent.

“More kids are likely to die while looking at their cell phone while driving than smoking pot,” he noted.

Former Carmel supervisor Frank DelCampo equated marijuana use to that of opioids and heroin.

“How can any responsible leader advocate for more drugs in our community in the midst of our current crisis of heroin and opioids?” he asked “[Gov. Cuomo] boasted that it would bring in $300 million in tax revenue, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict that the effects in healthcare services will far surpass any anticipated revenue. We are seeing that already in the states that have legalized it.”

However, Peter Parsons, supervisor for the town of Lewisboro, said he was in favor of legalization, mostly because of social justice inequities, if certain parameters are followed.

“I think it is inevitable that we make marijuana legal,” he said. “We have a social justice problem, which is huge. If you are lucky and have my color skin, you will likely not see the inside of a jail cell. If you are black or Hispanic, the odds are you will.

We also have the problem of weed being enhanced by chemical additives.  And there is a practical reason in my mind [for legalization]. New Jersey is going to legalize it. Massachusetts has, as has Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine. Whatever we do, it’s going to be practically available all around us. What we have to do is think about how, rather than whether.

“Towns don’t necessarily need the right to opt out, but a way to control it. If Pound Ridge opts out and [Lewisboro doesn’t], then it’s a bit of a farce, isn’t it?” he added.

Oliva, chief of the Mount Pleasant Police Department and president of the Westchester Chiefs of Police Association, said that law enforcement was united in opposing the measure.

“We are in unison in saying we are not in favor of the legalization of marijuana,” he said. “It is based on public safety. You can banter back and forth about all kinds of statistics, but common sense would dictate that people are going to die on the roadways. We have a tough enough time with alcohol and trying to control that and now you are going to introduce another substance.

“And it is our understanding that the illicit sales are not going to stop,” he added. “If anyone can try to avoid paying tax on something, I think they’re going to do it.  And as far as social justice is concerned, possession of marijuana is a violation; it’s like a parking ticket, it’s not a crime. We don’t put people in jail for that.”

Pleasantville resident John Mueller said he disapproved of the way the measure was being introduced—through the budget and not through its own legislation.

“It seems so decidedly undemocratic for the governor to put this inside a larger spending bill,” he said. “I think what is important is to get this on the floor and have some very vigorous debate.”

Mueller said that because of the different size of municipalities, a “one size” law does not fit all.

“Pleasantville is 1.6 square miles so we can’t really put [dispensaries] anywhere [because] there are kids everywhere,” he said. “This is not going to be a mom-and-pop-type industry.  It’s going to be corporations like the liquor industry and the tobacco industry. So, I am asking you to slow it down and get it out of the budget and allow towns to opt out if they want to.”

Roger Green, a retired pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said legalizing cannabis would not be detrimental to teens or he wouldn’t endorse it.

“I would not be speaking here tonight if I thought legalization of cannabis would harm children,” he said. “In the first two states to do it, Washington and Colorado, youth cannabis use did not increase; in fact, it seemed to decrease in Colorado. Neither did the use of illicit drugs, such as heroin.”

Green, who last year organized NORML’s Hudson Valley chapter, said it’s not a good idea for young people to smoke marijuana, just as it’s not a good idea for them to drink alcohol

“But I would rather have them drink beer than unregulated moonshine,” he said.

Noting that about 1.25 million New Yorkers use cannabis regularly, Green said legalization is a good idea because the quality and content could be professionally monitored.

“If it’s legal, laboratory testing can minimize contamination and it would eliminate deaths caused by synthetic marijuana,” he said. “I see scores of children whose parents were incarcerated for selling cannabis. We are not doing any good putting parents in jail when 1.25 million New Yorkers are using it regularly. Just as Prohibition gave a lot of money to gangsters like Al Capone, many kids growing up start doing illegal things because there is so much money to tempt them. I would like to see that stopped.”

Harckham said legalizing recreational cannabis is a challenging issue with “a lot of moving parts.”

“There are a lot of considerations here and you gave us a lot of food for thought,” he told the crowd. “I’m committed to a full and thorough discussion on all facets and potential impacts of the legalization of recreational marijuana. I encourage those from my district who could not attend the public forum to send their comments to me at harckham@nysenate.gov.”