By JON CRONIN
Legalization is coming, whether you like it or not. That was the takeaway from a well-attended listening session at the Jamaica Center for the Arts and Learning on Monday night, hosted by the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. There were few detractors in attendance, but even they conceded that it was not a question of if marijuana is going to be legalized for recreational use, but when.
Recreational-marijuana legalization has already taken place in Canada, Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts. Currently, New Jersey is looking at moving a bill through as well.
In January, the state Department of Health was assigned the task of investigating legalization, and released a report recommending it in June. The report found that “a regulated marijuana program would have health, social justice and economic benefits — however, risks associated with marijuana have been identified, although research for some of those risks is divided.”
At Monday’s event, the focus was on the specifics of implementation, including safety concerns.
Queens legislators kicked off the evening. State Sen. Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest) and Councilman Donovan Richards (D-Far Rockaway) all gave speeches in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana. All three said they endorsed legalization primarily for the purpose of keeping people of color out of jail for low-level offenses.
Comrie pointed out that Queens District Attorney Richard Brown is one of the few holdouts on legalization among his peers. However, Lancman, who declared two days after the listening session that he would run for DA in September 2019, is for it. Lancman also stated at the event that he believes that in effect, marijuana is already legal for white people.
Richards echoed Lancman’s comment, adding, “There is no correlation between legalizing marijuana and lawlessness.”
Views in opposition were presented by several medical experts. Dr. Arthur C. Fougner, an OB-GYN at Forest Hills Hospital, stated that New York does not have the infrastructure to deal with the legalization of pot. He said that Colorado recorded an increase in car crashes after legalization occurred there. Another physician, Dr. Russell Kaymark, said he fears the state could be going down the road it did when oxycodone was pushed as a safe opioid in the 1990s, and now the country faces an opioid-addiction crisis.
Although many of the detractors did not support the recreational use of marijuana, they all supported its medical use. Others spoke passionately about the drug’s ability to suppress significant pain without withdrawal symptoms, including for cancer patients, people with multiple sclerosis, former addicts and people recovering from life-changing surgeries.
On the day of the hearing, Gov. Cuomo signed a bill adding acute pain to the list of conditions for which medical marijuana could be prescribed. Since medical marijuana was legalized, the state has been very restrictive in adding ailments eligible for treatment.
Cuomo’s bill signing was not a focus of the hearing, as residents were more concerned with other issues, including the business side of the industry and the impact it would have on communities.
Many expressed a hope that smaller entrepreneurs would be given a chance to grow and sell marijuana, so the market would not be dominated by large pharmaceutical companies. Barbara, a Ridgewood resident who is involved in the sale of medical marijuana, said that the cottage industry for the sale of recreational marijuana was killed by state laws that cater to multimillion-dollar companies. She believes that smaller businesses would need to be protected by the state once recreational marijuana becomes legal.
Everett Heines, an employee at a liquor distributor, stated that the three-tier system of liquor distribution — which requires a producer, a distributor and a retailer — would suit the regulation of marijuana well.
While proponents of legalization often spoke of how this would lead to fewer arrests of minorities and people of color, not everyone believed this to be the case. Walter Simpson, a Jamaica resident, said he doesn’t expect arrests in his community to end; he believes the police will find a loophole in the law to detain his neighbors — charging them with crimes like “disorderly conduct” instead of possession of an illegal substance.
His concerns were echoed by many others, who added that the potential overtaxation of marijuana could lead to a more robust black market.
All in all, the listening session allowed for a lively discussion among attendees of the ramifications of legalizing recreational marijuana.