Wide-ranging coalition urges caution on legalizing marijuana

Legislative Gazette file photo
Dr. Kevin Sabet, president of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

A coalition of parents, health experts, educators and former drug addicts are asking lawmakers to “slow down” and think through the real-life effects of commercializing recreational marijuana in New York.

A recent press conference in the Capitol was organized by Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or S.A.M., and was led by Dr. Kevin Sabet, a former senior drug policy adviser in the Obama Administration and the current president of SAM. Sabet was joined by victims of drug abuse, law enforcement, health care experts and education advocates.

The group is calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators to take a step back from fast tracking legal marijuana and provide more time to review facts and laws in relation to the legalization of marijuana.

The coalition opposed to legal recreational marijuana is hoping to slow down the commercialization of marijuana in New York, saying it will create a new industry similar to Big Tobacco.

S.A.M.  is also urging lawmakers focus on the decriminalization of marijuana, rather than the legalization and commercialization. Decriminalization is, first and foremost, the social justice issue that could reduce the number of arrests, especially in minority communities.

“We are often caught in a false dichotomy that you either have to criminalize people and lock them up for minor pot possession, or you have to legalize marijuana. We should reject that false dichotomy. We can make our current drug laws better without creating the Philip Morris of Marijuana,” Sabet said.

Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, is also an advocate for focusing the attention on decriminalization and expunging records. “Let’s correct the historic wrongs and we know that many other states have done that as an afterthought and they’re still not done. That’s where our priorities should be,” Fahy said.

As for the money being put back into the community — as advocates of legalization often say — may not often be the case, says William Jones, an organizer of Two Is Enough D.C., an anti-marijuana group that formed around the Washington D.C. ballot initiative in 2014 that legalized marijuana.

“When has the revenue from alcohol, which is heavily taxed, or tobacco, or the lottery, when has it actually changed our communities?” Jones asked. “This is a myth that corporate organizations that want our dollars are pushing. That this is for social equality, that this is for social justice, when again the reality is that it will further inequalities that our community already faces.”

In addition to advocating for a more cautious look, Smart Approaches to Marijuana is also concerned about sending the wrong message to young people.

“This is a child welfare and health issue. Our children will be harmed by the legalization of marijuana,” said Kyle Belokopitsky, the executive director of New York the State Parent Teacher Association. “One in five of our high school children currently in the past month has been vaping or using tobacco.”

In the past year, there has been a 78 percent increase in e-cigarette usage in high school students from 2017 to 2018 according to the CDC’s National Youth Tobacco Survey.

With tobacco products now coming in flavors such as “banana split” and “cotton candy”, there is an obvious appeal to teens and young adults. Today, marijuana comes in various forms, and the concern is that the appeal for marijuana will be even stronger than tobacco.

“The marijuana of today is now waxes, edibles, cookies, candy bars, [and] lollipops. It’s not the old joint that was passed around 40 years ago,” Sabet said.

Fahy said she fears teens using marijuana will affect their development and overall health. According to Fahy “There is an intensity in usage and we know that leads to all sorts of other related problems, health problems and developmental problems for youth because the brain is not fully developed until age 25.”

Other concerns about the legalization of marijuana are impaired driving, programs for marijuana addiction, and the overall safety of marijuana products and their consumption.

These issues, according to S.A.M., must be addressed before marijuana is legalized, and members of the coalition are asking for more time before the green light is given to legalization.

Stephanie Marquesano, who lost her son Harris, to drug abuse, is imploring lawmakers to take their time. Marquesano is the founder of The Harris Project, an organization that helps young adults with mental health issues and substance abuse.

“I am asking the governor and our legislators to simply slow down. To that end, New Yorkers would benefit from a thorough examination of the states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use and carefully weigh the true impact,” Marquesano said.