Nudged by the pandemic and its attendant fiscal fallout, state legislators and Governor Cuomo finally found common ground on legislation that legalizes the personal use of marijuana.

Following votes in the Assembly and Senate and the Governor’s ratification on March 31, New York became the 15th state to legalize the sale and purchase of recreational marijuana.

 

Apprehension

Once underway, within a year the legal-marijuana industry is expected to spur $3.5 billion annually in economic activity, create as many as 60,000 jobs and reap about $350 million in state tax revenue. 

The agreement—which followed numerous false starts in recent years due to an inability by lawmakers and Mr. Cuomo to reach consensus on fiscal and other aspects of legislation—was applauded in most quarters. Activists and civil libertarians might have cheered the loudest, given, they said, that the state’s drug laws had ensnared thousands in the justice system for little more than possessing a few joints. 

But others are wary given that legalization could lead to increased casual use and have powerful effects, particularly on the state's roads.  

“As far as people using marijuana in the privacy of their own homes, we’re not really concerned about that,” the executive director of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, Patrick D. Phelan, said April 1. “But we know that people are going to use marijuana and then drive. We need to be prepared for enforcement.” 

Crashes and Deaths Rose

Evidence from other states that have legalized marijuana points to higher incidences of crashes and traffic deaths post legalization, he said. 

“There’s no question that it affects your fine motor skills,” just as even some prescription drugs do, said Mr. Phelan, who retired as Police Chief of the Monroe County town of Greece in December. “It will affect your reaction time and it will affect your awareness.”

The legislation calls for state Department of Health officials to work with university researchers “to  evaluate  methodologies and technologies for  the detection of cannabis-impaired driving,” with study reports due by the end of 2022. DOH will then be responsible for creating and implementing rules and regulations regarding protocols to test for the presence of cannabis in drivers. 

Still, Chief Phelan and others are seeking additional safeguards. The District Attorneys Association, for instance, has also articulated concerns regarding roadway safety and marijuana use. Its president, Sandra Doorley, urged lawmakers to ensure that driving under the influence of marijuana remains a misdemeanor rather than just a traffic infraction akin to speeding or running a stop sign.

Specialized Officers

The use of cannabis by drivers will remain against the law, with second and subsequent offenses becoming felonies that carry higher fines and longer jail terms and license revocations. 

Ahead of the law’s passage, Ms. Doorley, who is also the Monroe County DA, urged lawmakers and the Governor to prepare for the potential for an increase in impaired drivers.

“I appreciate that our lawmakers heeded our advice and allowed driving while under the influence of marijuana to remain a misdemeanor, but prosecutors must have the statutory tools to prove the misdemeanor in order to deter impaired drivers,” she said in a statement.

Given that there are no agreed-upon standards for “highness” or roadside screening devices that can measure how high a person might be, both DA Doorley and Chief Phelan want lawmakers to boost the number of officers who are specially trained to determine how impaired someone might be. There are currently only about 200 such officers deployed statewide, a vastly insufficient number to contend with what’s likely going to be an epidemic of people driving high, Chief Phelan said. 

'A Fairly Simple Fix'

While the field is a “very technical” one involving very lengthy and expensive training, he said increasing the number of those expert officers was worth the investment. “That’s a fairly simple fix on the state’s part,” he said. 

“We need to have the message in place to combat driving while under the influence of marijuana before we legalize it,” he added. 

The legislation includes language calling for the expansion and enhancement of “the drug recognition expert training program and technologies” to maintain road safety, but Mr. Phelan said it lacked details.

While the District Attorneys Association praised that part of the legislation, DA Doorley also said more needs to be done. 

“Drug Recognition Experts are only part of the solution and may not always be able to detect if someone has ingested edibles that will be legal to sell and purchase under the new law,” she said. “We urge our lawmakers to consider a more consistent way of defining impairment under our laws.”

School Officers Statewide

The DA’s association also would like lawmakers to fund similar training for all of law enforcement, including officers in smaller jurisdictions. “Training police officers to recognize drug impaired driving is expensive and time consuming. With more access to impairing substances, there will be more impaired drivers on our roads and essentially police officers and sheriffs at all levels will have to be trained,” Ms. Doorley said.

While there also is some concern about whether legalization could lead to an increase in overall drug use and criminal activity, a Siena College Poll of state voters released in mid-March found that 59 percent supported legalization while 33 percent opposed it. 

Chief Phelan said that with legalization now well underway, the overriding concern was people’s welfare.  

“We don’t want to get into a philosophical debate about it,” he said. “We  just want to make sure that your mother and my sister and our kids that are driving out there on the roadways are safe. That’s really all we’re concerned with.”


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