An­other look at laws for le­gal pot

Some North­east states re­group on le­gal­iza­tion

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Jen­nifer Peltz

NEW YORK >> A year ago, mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion looked like it was on a roll in the North­east — it had al­ready passed in three of the re­gion’s states and was a pri­or­ity for gover­nors in three more, in­clud­ing the pop­u­lous New York.

Now, af­ter leg­isla­tive ef­forts stalled and a va­p­ing sick­ness stirred new con­cerns, the gover­nors of New York, New Jer­sey and Con­necti­cut still want to make recre­ational pot le­gal. And they and Penn­syl­va­nia’s gov­er­nor have been com­par

ing notes on how to do it.

“This year, let’s work with our neigh­bors ... to co­or­di­nate a safe and fair sys­tem,” New York’s Gov. An­drew Cuomo said this week. His state hosted the four Demo­cratic gover­nors for an Oc­to­ber sum­mit on the is­sue.

But the states have dif­fer­ent ap­proaches and po­lit­i­cal ap­petites. They are con­tend­ing with new ques­tions as both op­po­nents and ad­vo­cates of le­gal­iza­tion point to the va­p­ing scare to make their cases. And in an elec­tion year for many state of­fice­hold­ers, the pol­i­tics of pot le­gal­iza­tion look all the more com­plex.

Sup­port­ers re­main hope­ful, par­tic­u­larly about New Jer­sey, where the ques­tion is now headed to vot­ers this fall, and New York, where Cuomo spot­lighted it in his State of the State speech Wed­nes­day.

“The fact that he has re­ally cen­tered it as part of his agenda for this leg­isla­tive ses­sion goes to show just the tremen­dous amount of im­pact and mo­men­tum there is around le­gal­iza­tion,” says Melissa Moore of the pro-le­gal­iza­tion Drug Pol­icy Al­liance.

To her, the lung ill­ness that has killed over 50 peo­ple, sick­ened thou­sands and been tied by au­thor­i­ties to a thick­en­ing agent in il­licit pot vapes has cre­ated “an ad­di­tional de­gree of fo­cus and ur­gency” for le­gal­iz­ing weed so users can get reg­u­lated, safety-checked prod­ucts.

Crit­ics of le­gal­iza­tion, how­ever, feel the dy­nam­ics have shifted their way.

“The va­p­ing cri­sis has opened up con­ver­sa­tions for us to talk about the harms of mar­i­juana,” said Kevin Sa­bet, pres­i­dent of the group Smart Ap­proaches to Mar­i­juana. Although its ef­forts were met with mixed re­sults last year — le­gal­iza­tion mea­sures stopped short in New Jer­sey and New York but suc­ceeded in Illi­nois — “that’s given us mo­men­tum in 2020,” Sa­bet says.

Two-thirds of U.S. states now al­low med­i­cal mar­i­juana, and recre­ational use is le­gal in 11, in­clud­ing the North­east­ern states of Mas­sachusetts, Maine and Ver­mont. (The lat­ter two cur­rently al­low some pos­ses­sion of the drug but haven’t started le­gal sales. Shops could open this spring in Maine, while Ver­mont has yet to en­act a sys­tem.)

New York seemed like it might be on track to join in last year, af­ter Cuomo got be­hind le­gal­iza­tion and Democrats en­joyed con­trol of both leg­isla­tive cham­bers for the first time in sev­eral years. But the ef­fort failed amid fric­tion over whether pot tax rev­enue would be com­mit­ted to ar­eas where mar­i­juana ar­rests once were con­cen­trated and how com­mu­ni­ties would get to choose whether to host dis­pen­saries, among other is­sues.

Law­mak­ers piv­oted and passed pro­vi­sions to elim­i­nate crim­i­nal penal­ties for pos­sess­ing small amounts of mar­i­juana and cre­ate an ex­punge­ment process.

This year, Se­nate Demo­cratic Leader An­drea Ste­wart-Cousins feels “le­gal­iza­tion is im­mi­nent, but there are re­al­i­ties that are con­crete.”

Law­mak­ers are very con­cerned about va­p­ing safety, she said. Cuomo, too, has el­e­vated health ques­tions; his pro­posal this year newly in­cludes a re­search cen­ter on health and safety is­sues.

And many sub­ur­ban leg­is­la­tors re­main cool or out­right op­posed to per­mit­ting recre­ational pot, cit­ing con­cerns about drugged driv­ing and other po­ten­tial down­sides.

“As a teacher, I’ve seen first-hand the ef­fects that drugs can have on chil­dren,” said state Sen. Mon­ica Martinez, a Demo­crat from sub­ur­ban Long Is­land. She op­poses mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion but feels New York­ers should vote on it (in New York, cit­i­zens can’t ini­ti­ate ref­er­en­dums, but law­mak­ers can).

Con­necti­cut Gov. Ned La­mont and New Jer­sey coun­ter­part Phil Mur­phy both cam­paigned on le­gal­iz­ing recre­ational mar­i­juana but have faced am­biva­lence in their leg­is­la­tures, where fel­low Democrats are in con­trol.

Mur­phy and New Jer­sey leg­isla­tive lead­ers pushed le­gal­iza­tion last year. But the mea­sure foundered on dis­agree­ments over ex­pung­ing past mar­i­juana con­vic­tions, whether black com­mu­ni­ties stood to gain or lose from a le­gal weed mar­ket, and other is­sues.

An ex­punge­ment mea­sure has since been en­acted sep­a­rately, and law­mak­ers now are tak­ing a dif­fer­ent tack on le­gal­iza­tion: They voted last month to put it on the bal­lot.

Con­necti­cut’s La­mont “is still ex­am­in­ing the path for­ward” on mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion, spokesman Max Reiss said this week.

Some pro­pos­als cleared Con­necti­cut leg­isla­tive com­mit­tees last year but never got full floor votes, and it re­mains un­clear how much sup­port there might be this year. Op­po­nents have raised ar­gu­ments rang­ing from health un­knowns for users to work­place is­sues for fed­eral de­fense con­trac­tors with big fa­cil­i­ties in the state.

Penn­syl­va­nia Gov. Tom Wolf this fall em­braced le­gal­iz­ing weed, af­ter pre­vi­ously say­ing the state should ex­plore it. But given op­po­si­tion from Re­pub­li­cans who con­trol the Leg­is­la­ture, Wolf con­sid­ers it more re­al­is­tic first to pur­sue lift­ing crim­i­nal penal­ties for mar­i­juana and cre­at­ing an ex­punge­ment mech­a­nism, spokesman J.J. Ab­bott said this week.

HANS PENNINK — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Lead grower El­iz­a­beth Keyser, talks about flow­er­ing med­i­cal mar­i­juana plants be­ing grown with spe­cial grow lights dur­ing a me­dia tour of the Cu­raleaf med­i­cal cannabis cul­ti­va­tion and pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity in Ravena, N.Y.

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