EDITORIAL: No pot opt-out

A DISCUSSION ABOUT LEGALIZED MARIJUANA should start with a joke, except that one-liners on the subject mostly amuse folks who are stoned.

Recreational marijuana use by adults is the subject here, and now there’s a local connection. This state has already passed legislation to make medicinal marijuana available to at least some of the people who may benefit from it. A few decades from now we will have enough data to wonder why we put so much faith in the plant’s ability to lessen pain or work cures.

Or, just as likely, we’ll wonder why we demonized such a remarkable drug and needlessly prolonged suffering it could have treated. By then we’ll admit that marijuana’s bad reputation was rooted in racism and politics more than in science. Will the next generations think any of this matters?

New York State does not yet have the political leadership to pass legislation authorizing the recreational use of marijuana. The term “recreational marijuana” itself hints at how uneasy some lawmakers feel about the subject. They make it sound like a new set of swings for municipal parks. Dudes, it’s a drug. Grownups would be allowed to use it and even abuse it as long as they aren’t under the influence when they drive, operate heavy machinery or perform heart surgery… which would be reasonable standards if we had reliable means of testing who’s too stoned to function.

Action on bills to legalize recreational marijuana stalled in the State Legislature. It was supposed to have been part of the state budget but now looks like it has little prospect of being adopted this year on its own.

That gives supporters and opponents a little more time to think about how they can remove their fingerprints from a law they will eventually have to pass. Local officials have been watching this political pot dance at the capitol and late last week the Columbia County Department of Health issued a press release urging “county leaders” (a.k.a. the Board of Supervisors) to “opt out of permitting retail shops” selling marijuana in Columbia County.

Regardless of where you stand on legalizing marijuana for uses other than medical, issuing this opinion is exactly what the public should want its Department of Health to do. These are the people responsible for ensuring to the best of their ability the overall health of the community. If a substance can have adverse health impacts and if they can protect the public by steps intended to limit the availability of the drug, that’s what they should recommend. They’re not being alarmist. It’s their job.

It’s also a physical impossibility. The neighboring states of Massachusetts and Vermont have already legalized the adult use of marijuana, which only adds to the supply of pot that already comes up the Parkway, the Thruway and on Amtrak. And it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that now and then a repurposed Amazon box full of weed slips lands on local doorsteps.

History reminds us that prohibition doesn’t work. We’re guaranteed the right to pursue happiness. The police agencies of this county do a thorough job of enforcing the age limit for purchasing alcoholic beverages. Why would we expect any less effective enforcement of marijuana purchases? This enforcement will cost the public more, but some–if not all–of that cost should be borne by legal marijuana merchants.

John Mabb, the county director of public health, concedes in the Health Department release that “for many this is a complex issue.” He accepts that there is no set timeline for the state to adopt a recreational marijuana law, and he lists some of the likely downsides of such a law in other states, including, “increases in emergency room visits, violent crime, and traffic accidents.”

But those consequences will plague us even if New York fails to legalize marijuana use. Director Mabb and the board of Health are right to warn us, but opting out is not the best long-term strategy for managing the risks that legal pot will bring. The Board of Supervisors should begin now to work on plans to regulate the sale of personal marijuana and specify where retail stores can operate.

The criminalization of marijuana decades ago turned trade in the drug over to criminals and its profits sustain a dark economy. From personal observation it seems at least as many lives have been damaged by sanctions against marijuana as they have by use of the drug. We need to reform the laws and let a regulated industry develop. We have other, more important, work to do.

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