Health panel advises no retail pot sales

HUDSON—The Columbia County Board of Health has voted unanimously to recommend to county leaders that they “strongly consider banning the retail sale” of pot in this county if the state legalizes it for recreational use.

But in recent news reports, Governor Andrew Cuomo has expressed doubt that there is enough support in the State Senate to pass a bill to legalize recreational marijuana this year. So what’s the rush?

In a May 16 press release from the Columbia County Department of Health (CCDOH), Columbia County Board of Health (CCBOH) President Pat DiGrigoli said, “We’ve just taken a big step forward with tobacco 21 and then we look to make a drug that has been illegal for a long time legal and more accessible… it doesn’t make sense to our members.”

The CCBOH is a nine-member board which focuses “solely on the health of the community,” CCDOH Public Health Director John “Jack” Mabb said by phone this week. Board members are doctors, nurses, a retired lawman, a former state health official and a representative from the Columbia County Board of Supervisors, Pat Grattan (R-Kinderhook). There is currently one vacancy on the board and all members are appointed by the county Board of Supervisors.

The county BOH, along with a medical director, the County Board of Supervisors Health Committee, a Professional Advisory Committee, and multiple task force committees provide administrative guidance and consultation to the Columbia County Department of Health (CCDOH), according to its website,

BOH member Marcia Fabiano, a retired nurse, brought the marijuana issue to the board’s attention at its May meeting, said Mr. Mabb, who mentioned his surprise at the unanimous vote.

The BOH decision came after thorough discussion and consideration of two reports: a March 15, 2019, 107-page document published by the Nassau County Task Force and the other a 14-page paper from the New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC) dated April 2019.

Under proposed retail-sale-of-marijuana legislation currently before both the State Senate and the State Assembly in New York, counties can opt-out of permitting retail shops by way of passing local laws.

Moving marijuana out of the unregulated black market will impact pubic health, public safety, criminal justice, the economy and the environment in New York State’s counties,” states the Counties Association report, which does not take a side on legalization of the drug, but rather reviews the “challenges and opportunities that may be presented to counties if state lawmakers decide on legalization.”

In explaining how the BOH came up with its decision for The Columbia Paper, Mr. Mabb said, marijuana is seen as “a gateway drug” and the board does not support promoting the “definite effects” the substance has on the body.

The DOH director made it clear that the board supports ongoing research into medicinal marijuana and its use.

While some recognize retail sales as a possible revenue source, Mr. Mabb said the estimated 2- to 4% in sales tax generated is “a paltry amount.”

Colorado, where marijuana was legalized in 2012 and retail sales were legalized in 2014, saw an increase in traffic-related incidents involving people driving while high.

The Nassau County report states, “With the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, traffic fatalities involving drivers testing positive for cannabinoids increased 153%. Traffic deaths involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana more than doubled from 55 in 2013 to 139 people killed in 2017. This equates to one person killed every 2 1⁄2 days compared to one person killed every 6 1⁄2 days.”

There is no way to test for a marijuana-impaired driver in the field, you need blood work for that,” said Mr. Mabb, who went on to note the need to retire or retrain all drug-sniffing canines in the event of legalization.

Police canines are trained to exhibit a particular behavior when they detect any type of drug. If a canine detects cannabis or another controlled substance, their behavior indicating detection remains the same.

Therefore, when a police canine trained for narcotics (including cannabis), shows behavior indicating that drugs may be present in a vehicle, there is no longer a valid reason to lawfully search that vehicle because it is unknown if the canine is hitting on cannabis or another controlled substance,” the Nassau report states.

Canine retraining doesn’t seem feasible since it will be “difficult to prove the dog is not exhibiting signs of prior training when indicating a positive hit. To avoid any potential challenges in court, the most viable option may be to utilize canines trained to detect cannabis for other purposes and purchase and train new ones for narcotics related searches.” The cost to a police agency for each new dog of proper pedigree was estimated at $8,000. Plus six to eight months of training in which the handler must be involved and taken out of service, said the Nassau report.

Mr. Mabb also noted the effects of marijuana on infants with the substance “stay[ing] in breast milk for three days,” subjecting children to components of the drug.

Director Mabb said in the CCDOH press release that, “This board takes its charge of improving the health of the Columbia County community seriously. And they also understand that for many this is a complex issue.”

“… Counties have to really consider the ramifications of legalizing retail marijuana, but given the negative impact that has been seen in other states, such as increases in emergency room visits, violent crime, and traffic accidents, the Columbia County Board of Health believes the issue is important enough to warrant early attention,” Mr. Mabb said in the release.

Contacted for a comment on the BOH recommendation, Columbia County Board of Supervisors Chairman Matt B. Murell (R-Stockport) said Tuesday, the issue of retail sales of marijuana in Columbia County has not been brought up or discussed at any Board of Supervisors meeting or committee meeting up to this point.

The state law has not passed and the Governor said this morning it likely won’t be this session.

So there’s plenty of time to review it and to formulate an opinion,” said the chairman.

The state legislative session adjourns June 19.

To contact Diane Valden email

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