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Marijuana conference examines inequality

A crowd watches a panel on the social justice and law enforcement issues surrounding marijuana at a conference Thursday.
A crowd watches a panel on the social justice and law enforcement issues surrounding marijuana at a conference Thursday.

At a conference on marijuana hosted by the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, law enforcement officials acknowledged that current laws around the drug are not enforced equally.

“We want to treat everybody equally, obviously, and we’re not doing that,” said Monroe County Undersheriff Korey Brown, speaking on a panel about legal issues surrounding marijuana. “So we need to make a change.”

Brown said people of color and people who live in impoverished neighborhoods often bear the brunt of policing, especially when it comes to marijuana.

But he also said the answer is not simply to legalize recreational use of the drug.

“It’s way more complicated than that,” Brown said. If government does not address the black market and the violence accompanying illegal marijuana use currently, those issues will remain even after legalization, he said.

Brown also expressed concern about an increase in impaired driving and emergency room visits that he said other states have seen after they legalized recreational marijuana.

Mary Kruger, the executive director of pro-legalization group Roc NORML, said if law enforcement officials “are serious” about correcting the inequalities around penalties for drug use and possession, they should act independent of the state Legislature.

Across New York, Kruger said, police departments and sheriff’s offices have been making low-level marijuana offenses their lowest priority.

“At the same time,” she said, “I’m sure a lot of folks sitting here in this room are from the city of Rochester, or Monroe County, and we’ve done neither of those things.”

State legislative leaders had signaled earlier in the year that they expected to pass a marijuana legalization measure with the state budget in March, but that deal never materialized.

Recreational use advocates at the conference said they’re still hoping the state Legislature will vote to legalize recreational weed before the end of the session in June.

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
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