Legislators weigh in on marijuana debate

In this file photo, marijuana and a pipe used to smoke it are displayed in New York. Although there’s broad agreement on the idea of legalization, there’s no consensus yet on a long list of details that must be figured out before the recreational use of marijuana can be legalized in New York.

With Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo continuing to push legal recreational marijuana use and retail sales for the state of New York, Chautauqua County Executive George Borrello said he would be interested in the county opting out of legal retail sales of the drug.

Cuomo said that future legislation would allow county and city governments to choose whether to allow retail sales within their boundaries. He mentioned in his recent State of the State address that statewide legalization would raise an estimated $300 million per year from taxes.

Borrello noted that he has concerns regarding the potentially negative impacts on social welfare, law enforcement and local business legal marijuana might have.

The Chautauqua County Legislature would likely have to vote to have the county opt out of a state law legalizing retail marijuana sales.

“Our communities and businesses are already heavily burdened,” Borrello wrote in a letter to Stephen Acquario, the executive director of the New York State Association of Counties. “Adding legalized marijuana into the mix will have more negatives than positives for management and enforcement.”

He cited a need for control over the drug similar to rules on alcohol use if marijuana is legalized. Borrello said marijuana should not be used in public as an “open container” and should be prohibited in establishments that have a liquor license.

The county executive said he also opposed the selling of marijuana-laced foods since children could be attracted to products such as desserts and candies. He also wrote that marijuana use in any public assembly should also be illegal.

County legislators have mixed feelings on the subject and how marijuana could impact residents and the local economy. Most expressed a need to talk with each other in further discussion this year to come to a consensus on how Chautauqua County should handle marijuana legalization if it passes. Currently, medicinal marijuana is legal in New York. If recreational marijuana becomes legal in the state, New York could become the 11th state to do so, after Washington, Oregon, Nevada, California, Colorado, Alaska, Michigan, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.

Legislator Daniel Pavlock, R-Sinclairville, said he’s interested in learning more about the health effects of marijuana. While he said it must have been illegal due to its mind-altering effects, he mentioned that already legal substances such as nicotine and alcohol are along the same lines.

“My feelings are (that) the use of medical marijuana is OK,” Pavlock said. “I like people to be able to have their freedoms. It still comes down to the person’s choice.”

Pavlock said he was aware of studies that reveal potentially positive and negative impacts. Currently, Pavlock said he would be against legalization but added that he’s open to changing his mind with the more he learns.

“There’s a lot to it,” Pavlock said. “You have to be open to the conversation”

Legislator Christine Starks, D-Fredonia, said she would take issue with the county opting out if retail sales of marijuana become legal statewide. She said she’s focused on consistency in what laws are enforced throughout the state and said that many border towns and villages could be uniquely affected by counties opting out of such legislation.

“The county by county thing gets to be ridiculous,” Starks said.

Legislators David Himelein, R-Findley Lake, and Kevin Muldowney, R-Dunkirk, said the premise of people legally being allowed to smoke marijuana isn’t appealing. Himelein said he isn’t against collecting taxes if it is sold but is against the recreational use of the drug on principle. They said they would be interested in opting out of legal retail sales as a county.

“I’m against the legalization of it,” Muldowney said.

Legislator Robert Bankoski, D-Dunkirk, said it’s too early to tell if opting out of legal retail sales would be a good option for the county because there aren’t details regarding any possible state legislation to legalize. He said that if there is already a problem with prospective employees not being able to pass drug tests, legalization of recreational marijuana could make that problem worse.

From an economic standpoint, he said tax revenue collected could prove beneficial if it stays in the county instead of helping to offset the state deficit.

He also highlighted the dangers of marijuana becoming a gateway drug for some people, leading them to harder substances. Bankoski thinks legalization could increase the amount of people who are under the influence of marijuana while at work or driving, which could increase the amount of accidents.

“I think that it can be a gateway drug and lead into other things,” said legislator Terry Niebel, R-Dunkirk.

Niebel said he is personally opposed to recreational use of marijuana but wasn’t sure if the county should opt out of potential legislation without knowing the specific details of a new state law.

“It seems kind of inevitable,” said legislator Elisabeth Rankin, R-Jamestown, regarding the upcoming discussion and possibility of legislation permitting the recreational usage and retail sale of marijuana.

She said it’s interesting that some politicians who are concerned over an opioid epidemic want to legalize a drug she thinks could make the issues surrounding other substances worse. Fellow Republican Niebel agreed that legalization could make the crisis worse.

Rankin asked rhetorical questions, such as how will employers handle drug policies with potentially incoming legalization. She asked how will police departments train more officers to be able to detect someone under the influence of marijuana.

“It’s hard to know what kind of impact it would have on us,” Rankin said.

She said that if the county opted out, then users might easily legally purchase it in other counties in the state. Rankin would want guidelines enforced regarding the use of cigarettes and alcohol to be extrapolated, so that marijuana consumers would be using under similar regulations.

Republican Legislator John Hemmer, R-Westfield, said he too has mixed feelings on the possibility. He noted that various studies can contradict each other and offer different insights into how legalization could affect people, businesses and communities.

“The legalization could solve some problems and create more,” Hemmer said. “It just seems that we don’t need it in Chautauqua County.”

He said more negatives than positives could arise from legalization, so he would support opting out of legal retail sales in the county. Like his legislator colleagues, Hemmer continues to be a proponent of the medicinal use of marijuana; he said its use for medical reasons has proven to be beneficial and effective.

Hemmer noted other potential effects, like the perceived negative impact of enforcing more taxes on an already highly taxed state or the possible positive benefit of decreasing the amount of young people who end up in jail for experimenting. He said the negative health effects and possibility of more people driving while under the influence of marijuana are the two biggest factors that eliminate the positive gains.

Legislator Kevin O’Connell, D-Silver Creek, also agreed that medicinal marijuana needs to remain accessible but became mixed when addressing the possibility of legal recreational usage of the drug. He said further discussions within the County Legislature are definitely needed.

“There can be some positives for the county,” O’Connell said.

He said that growing the plant might help boost the agricultural economy of the county. Still, he said that at least having the ability to opt out of legal sales is a “real advantage” for county and city governments. He said it’ll be important to be realistic about its impacts, which could vary depending on the details of future proposals.

“It’s going to be an interesting topic for discussion,” said O’Connell, who, like most, believes it’s a talk that is absolutely on the horizon.