Marijuana advocates told a New York panel considering legalization that it should be affordable and accessible to everyone rather than enriching corporate producers and state tax coffers.
Of about 30 people who spoke at the first of 15 “listening sessions” on legalizing recreational marijuana Wednesday evening, most touted its therapeutic qualities and many advocated letting people grow their own. A few spoke against legalization, citing potential adverse health effects.
Marijuana will be a big issue when lawmakers return to Albany in January. In July, state health officials recommended legalizing recreational marijuana in a 74-page report that estimated it could generate nearly $700 million in tax revenues for the state.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has appointed a 20-person panel to draft legislation. The listening sessions, which continue around the state through mid-October, will provide public input to the panel.
While Democrat Cuomo has long opposed legalization, calling marijuana a “gateway drug,” he has softened his stance under pressure from proponents, including actress Cynthia Nixon, who’s challenging him in a primary next week.
Dr. Joseph Sellers, a Schoharie County pediatrician who spoke on behalf of the Medical Society of the State of New York, said the society recommends decriminalization but not legalization of recreational marijuana use. He said studies have found increased incidence of marijuana-related traffic deaths and exposure of children to the drug in states that have legalized it.
Another pediatrician, Dr. Roger Green, said many of his young patients were already getting marijuana from unregulated dealers on the black market and it would be better if he could recommend legal, less-potent strains to those who choose to use it.
The Rev. Henry McGrath of NeighborhoodsAgainstDrugs, a Fulton County social action group fighting the opioid epidemic, said marijuana should be treated like any other product grown by New York farmers. “We believe marijuana is a natural medicinal herb,” he said. “Marijuana should be legalized in New York state on that basis rather than heavily regulated, which would serve only corporations and government’s unnecessary control.”
Several speakers advocated expunging conviction records of those imprisoned for marijuana offenses and allowing them to participate in new businesses related to legalized pot. “A bunch of white men are poised to become very rich off the same thing our people have gone to jail for, for decades,” said Lauren Manning, assistant director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany.
Zachary Savage, a meteorologist, said marijuana could be a “budding industry” creating jobs in New York the way craft beer has.
Samara Gabree, a nurse practitioner certified to prescribe medical marijuana, said she sees many low-income patients who can’t afford to pay several hundred dollars for marijuana from a dispensary. “We need to move forward in a way people can afford it,” she said.
Nine states, including Vermont and Massachusetts, have legalized recreational marijuana use for adults. It remains illegal on the federal level.
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