The Suffolk County Legislature in Riverhead Tuesday hosted a public hearing on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to legalize recreational adult-use marijuana in New York State.
In response to that plan, Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta introduced legislation in January that would allow Suffolk County to opt out of the law.
“Having been a police officer for 25 years, I know firsthand that making marijuana available for sale is a step in the wrong direction,” Mr. Trotta said in a press release announcing the legislation.
Mr. Trotta and other supporters say that marijuana is a gateway drug toward other substances and can impair functions needed to safely complete tasks like operating a motor vehicle.
The hourlong hearing drew a dozen speakers who mostly opposed the county’s proposal to opt out of allowing legal marijuana sales.
“The idea that pot is a gateway drug is specious,” said Mary Mulcahy of Greenport. “Alcohol is the gateway drug.”
Some speakers, including David Falkowski of Bridgehampton, said the legislative body was acting too fast in response to the state’s plan and should wait until state lawmakers release their proposed legislation for review before taking action.
Nearly all who spoke in favor of allowing recreational pot sales referenced the tax benefits reaped in states that have already legalized the drug.
“If you opt out, you’re not going to be able to get the tax money,” said Ron Gibbons, highlighting the county’s current financial status.
Sue Reeve of Riverhead said that recreational use could also bring jobs to the area.
“If Suffolk County says no to this, you’re out of your [damn] minds,” she said.
Presiding officer DuWayne Gregory asked supporters whether they believe there should be restrictions on where potential future dispensaries would be located.
“People are for it, but don’t want it near them, some want it in industrial areas, some want it downtown,” he noted.
Abigail Field, a Cutchogue resident, said she supports the legalization plan but hopes to see it well-regulated.
“I hope the state will empower local communities to put their own regulations on it,” she said, such as how late they can stay open and what storefronts should look like.
Ms. Field said that she would welcome dispensaries in downtown retail areas, citing the plentiful amount of liquor stores that currently operate in shopping centers and downtown areas.
From a medical standpoint, Legislator William Spencer said he would be concerned with the potency of different marijuana products.
“We know you can’t drive if your blood alcohol content is .08 percent, but with marijuana, I just don’t know where that [limit] is,” he said.
Ms. Field argued that if legal sales were permitted, retailers could be required to test and label the products to focus on “harm minimization.”
Legislators posed these questions to those who testified during the public hearing Tuesday: Would the price disparity between a dispensary and a “black market” sale discourage people from purchasing the drug legally? Could opting out — even if neighboring counties do not — also encourage black market distribution, particularly on the North Fork?
“If you live in Riverhead, you’re not going to go to Queens to get pot,” Mr. Gregory said, adding that the opt-out would apply only to sale and production — not possession.
Ms. Mulcahy agreed. “I foresee [people] utilizing their illegal connections,” she said.
Ms. Reeve said that she suspects people would be willing to pay more to purchase from a dispensary, where quality and safety could be assured.
Angela Huneault of Southampton spoke out in complete opposition to the plan to legalize recreational marijuana. “This needs not to be here,” she said, calling for stricter laws, fines and penalties rather than lifting restrictions.
Medical marijuana is now legal in 33 states; 10 have adopted progressive laws to legalize recreational use.
“This issue is very complex, more so on the surface than I originally thought,” Mr. Gregory said.
The measure was recessed until the County Legislature’s next meeting, March 26.
Photo caption: Ron Gibbons spoke out against the county’s plan to ban the sale of recreational marijuana in Suffolk County. (Tara Smith)