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AM New York: Marijuana legalization debated by New York State Assembly

By Ivan Pereira, January 11

Lawmakers had the dubious task Thursday of opening the floor to arguments for the legalization of marijuana in New York.

In light of growing national support over for legalizing pot — a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday found that 58 percent of Americans want it decriminalized — State Assemb. Richard Gottfried, who chairs the assembly’s health committee, said the state needed to take a serious look at its antiquated drug enforcement laws.

“We want to hear from a diverse group” Gottfried said.

When the state last made major changes to its criminal laws concerning marijuana 40 years ago, it decriminalized nonpublic possession of small amounts of the plant. Currently, New Yorkers can legally obtain marijuana for medicinal use after they are approved by a medical professional and the state.

Most of the medical professionals, nonprofit groups and other individuals who testified during Thursday’s hearing said New York would benefit in several ways from allowing the regulated sale of cannabis to adults. Dr. Julia Holland, a member of the nonprofit group Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, noted that early studies have shown that crime rates and teen pot use have declined in states that legalized marijuana.

“States like Washington and Colorado show that [the] legalization of cannabis works,” she said.

Sheriff Barry Virts, the incoming president of the New York State Sheriffs’ Association, however, voiced concerns about the possible rule change. He said his officers are worried about an increase in drivers who get behind the wheel while high.

Virts, who said one of his sons has battled drug addiction, added that he worries that legal marijuana could add to the state’s growing opioid epidemic.

“When so many of our friends and loved ones are battling addiction problems, it seems counter intuitive,” he said.

Dr. Julia Arnsten, a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, however, said studies have shown that marijuana has had the exact opposite effect in states that legalized the substance. Deaths from pain medication overdoses were down 25 percent in states with legal pot, she said.

“These findings support the conclusion that people turn to marijuana instead of opioid medications,” she said.