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Advocates and opponents are skeptical of Cuomo’s marijuana plan

In February, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the legalization of marijuana sales is overdue and needs to get done as part of the state’s budget process, largely because the state needs the revenue in order to bridge its budget gap. 

The Cuomo administration projects that legalizing sales would create more than 60,000 new jobs, $3.5 billion in economic activity and add about $350 million in tax revenue.

“It is a controversial topic,” said Cuomo. “It's controversial and a difficult vote. I believe that if we don’t get it done by the budget, then we’re not gonna get it done.”

But Mary Kruger, leader of marijuana advocacy group Roc NORML, does not like that idea because Cuomo would be able to shape the bill. So far, she is unimpressed with the measure and said the time for compromise has passed.

“We aren’t fighting for legalization by any means necessary,” said Kruger. “We are fighting for legalization that has justice, equity and reinvestment, and that’s not what Gov. Cuomo is trying to do.

“He’s (Cuomo) proposing that after we legalize, we further criminalize people for using unregulated cannabis.” 

Today, possessing less than 2 ounces of pot is a violation in New York state. Cuomo’s plan would make possessing any amount of unregulated cannabis a misdemeanor, which would be an incentive for marijuana users to buy from state-approved vendors. 

That reinvestment is another sticking point for Kruger and marijuana entrepreneur Steve VanDeWalle. Cuomo’s plan puts aside $100 million “to help revitalize communities that have been most harmed by the war on drugs.” Both VanDeWalle and Kruger argue that the fund should be bigger. 

These advocates also say proposed regulations are too restrictive on residents growing marijuana at home. VanDeWalle said home growers could be the new microbrewers.

“This craft beer and wine industry was developed by entrepreneurs trying out new recipes in their basements,” said VanDeWalle.

VanDeWalle said laws aimed at growing marijuana-related entrepreneurship would allow the industry to grow faster and provide more tax revenue.

Kruger called Colorado’s legalization effort “the gold standard.” VanDeWalle agrees with her. 

“What we’ve seen in other states like Colorado -- less taxes and lower barrier to entry -- means more revenue,” said VanDeWalle. “More revenue means more money for community reinvestment.”

Credit Dan Clark/WMHT

But the leadership of the Monroe County Medical Society said Colorado is a cautionary tale, not a model.

Lucia Acosta-Castillejo, the group’s executive director, said the medical society stands by a position held by major physicians groups, including the American Medical Association and the Council of Science and Public Health, regarding legalized marijuana.

“They actually concluded that cannabis is a dangerous drug and should not be legalized,” Acosta-Castillejo said. “Physicians are really concerned because marijuana is an addictive drug that could have a significant adverse public health impact if it were to be legalized for nonmedical purposes.” 

Dr. Edith Grannum, who sits on the medical society’s board, said the group is supportive of medicinal marijuana, which is already legal in New York. 

She said New York does not have the infrastructure to handle the side effects that come with widespread marijuana use. Higher levels of addiction is a concern, because it increased when Colorado legalized sales a few years ago. She said the state will need more medical personnel and rehabilitation beds to handle it. 

“I think a big part of legalization of marijuana that Governor Cuomo wants to promote is really about it becoming more taxable, and to really have another source of revenue and generations of funds for what’s really a potentially broke state,” Grannum said.

“I think that it's short-sighted on many levels on his part,” Grannum continued. “If he’s going to start with the legalization of marijuana, he needs to look at the legal system, and all of the people who have been incarcerated for use and possession and get people of jail especially since it's primarily impacting communities of people of color.”

One concern shared by Grannum and Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter: driving while high. 

“We are not prepared to do enforcement with people who are driving high as easy and efficient as people who are driving under the influence of alcohol,” said Baxter.

If the legalization effort is successful, Baxter said the changes should come with more funding for training because dealing with people who are driving while high presents a new set of challenges for police. 

Baxter said there are more than 300 sheriff's deputies in Monroe County, and only eight are trained on how to handle someone under the influence of drugs. Those eight deputies went through intensive training that cost thousands of dollars per officer.

But Baxter is more concerned with confusion, because decriminalization isn’t legalization. Decriminalization means the penalties are lower. Baxter said as long as marijuana possession is a violation, whenever law enforcement finds it on someone, particularly at traffic stops, they’ll confiscate it. But if it were up to him, the public and law enforcement wouldn’t have to worry about it.

“I personally say, if you’re gonna legalize it, legalize it. If you’re going to make it illegal, make it illegal, so it doesn’t place my deputy, at 3 o’clock in the morning, in a bad position with a confused constituent,” Baxter said.

He said moves toward legalization should be easy to understand and backed by a plan to educate the public before it happens.

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.