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County Examines Impact Of Legalization Of Marijuana

Health and public safety leaders in Chautauqua County continue to oppose the legalization of marijuana, even though the state is closer to permitting it for recreational purposes.

Christine Schuyler serves as the county’s public health director and commissioner of Social Services. She is also a member of the state Association of County Health Officials and notes that organization opposed legalization of marijuana in the past and plans to oppose it again.

“We really are of the opinion as local health officials and local health departments that legalization of regulated marijuana will lead to dangerous public health outcomes,” she told members of the legislature’s Human Services Committee.

Colorado has had legalized recreational marijuana since 2014. Schuyler said that state has been studied to determine the effects it has had on public health.

According to Schuyler, studies have shown concerns about:

¯ addiction to marijuana after long-term use;

¯ cannabis withdrawal symptoms;

¯ adolescents are two to four times more likely to become dependent within two years of use, compared to adults;

¯ there are concerns marijuana can become a gateway drug;

¯ there have been noted cognitive and academic effects, including impaired learning memory in reading and math, even 28 days after last use;

¯ mental illness issues including an increase in anxiety and depression;

¯ increase risk of stroke among individuals under 55 years old and an increase in heart attacks among adults;

¯ daily use appears to be associated with chronic bronchitis, cough and wheezing;

¯ unintended exposure to children, which can lead to hospitalization. A 2016 study showed 14,000 children are at risk for marijuana that isn’t properly stored and 16,000 are exposed to second hand smoke;

¯ increase in motor vehicle accidents, caused by impaired driving;

¯ a 20-30% increase in homelessness.

“Local health departments across the state have been working to curb opioid addition, overdose and death. We’ve also been dealing with methamphetamine and an increase number of overdoses. We have a robust Narcan program trying to prevent overdoses, and honestly as public health professionals who are trying to fight on the front lines of the current opioid epidemic, this seems very counterintuitive to condone the use of marijuana,” said Schuyler.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who backs the legalization of marijuana, has discussed the tax revenue from it and has made it part of his proposed budget. Schuyler said health officials are still skeptical.

“We are unsure of any proposed increases in tax revenue would be implemented in the state’s budget,” she said, adding that legalization of marijuana would increase the workload of public health departments, which would cost more money.

Schuyler also noted that when tobacco settlements were reached, money that was given to Chautauqua County did not go to public health. “Quite frequently, many of these increased tax revenues go to fund roads and bridges and capital projects. All of these unintentional impacts receive no attention in the funding,” she said.

There are environmental concerns as well. Schuyler cited a 2016 study that shows in Colorado, the marijuana industry took enough electricity to power 32,355 homes, was responsible for 393,053 pounds of CO2 emissions, and creates over 18.78 million pieces of plastic for packaging.

PUBLIC SAFETY

County Sheriff James Quattrone went and visited Colorado to see firsthand the impacts of marijuana. He shared his thoughts with members of the legislature’s Public Safety Committee.

His first observation was with the locations that sold the drug. “I see a lot of issues in and around the dispensaries, where you have people going in legally to buy it in the front door and literally out the back door selling it on the black market,” he said. “The level of crime that surrounds the dispensaries has been increased in those areas.”

Quattrone said he personally opposes the legalization of marijuana but notes that the state will have the final say. He thinks it will be legal sometime this year.

District Attorney Jason Schmidt noted that one of the advantages of keeping marijuana illegal is that the odor of marijuana permits vehicles to be searched without obtaining a warrant. “The truth of the matter is, that’s lead to recovery and seizure of loaded firearms, heroin, fentanyl, all kinds of dangerous instruments and the laying of very serious felony charges and removing people from the streets,” he said.

On the flip side, Schmidt did note that courts do get bogged down dealing with illegal marijuana possession arrests and hand out relatively minor punishments. “We’re spending a lot of money enforcing those laws,” he said.

FINANCIAL IMPLICATIONS

County Budget Director Kathleen Dennison has been in touch with the state Association of Counties. It estimates that in the 2021-2022 budget, New York will generate $20 million in tax revenue. That is expected to increase to $374 million over the next five years. There are no estimates as to how much would be given to individual counties.

According to Dennison, some of the funds will earmarked to address societal impacts from legalizing marijuana. “It’s unclear how much of the revenue would really be available for local share usage,” she said.

County attorney Stephen Abdella noted Chautauqua County officials will need to decide if they want to permit or ban dispensaries.

Right now the state is proposing five business licenses: cultivator, processor, cooperative license, distributor license and retail dispensary license. “Our ability to opt out would be to opt out of any one or more of those five licenses, so those businesses would not be able to be licensed in our county,” said Abdella.

That wouldn’t ban recreational marijuana from Chautauqua County; it would restrict businesses from selling it. “Presumably if we did not allow sales in the county, then the county will not get revenue. It may reduce the amount of availability or usage or it may not – I don’t know – but we would probably be forgoing revenue if we eliminate any one of more of those licenses within the county,” said Abdella.

Schuyler was asked if she advocated for opting out of select licenses, should recreational marijuana be approved. She said a lot will depend on what neighboring counties do. “To be stuck on an island by ourselves, where we’re the only ones that opt out and everyone else has legalized it, I think we’re still going to see negative impacts within our county,” she said.

Human Services Committee Chairman Dan Pavlock said the legislature is not ready to vote on anything. He said the discussions were meant to get county lawmakers thinking about this now. “We didn’t want to be in July and have the state pass this and now we’re all of a sudden faced with ‘Oh boy, we better start talking about this.’ Our hope is that in July or August, if it is passed, we will have started that conversation and be a little ahead of the game,” he said.

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