Within the next year New York could be one of the few states in the Northeast to still ban recreational marijuana use.
Vermont’s Senate approved a bill Wednesday legalizing marijuana for personal use. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, is expected to sign the bill, which would make Vermont the state the ninth in the country to legalize recreational marijuana. It would also be the first state to legalize the drug through legislation, rather than a ballot referendum. The measure does not legalize commercial sale.
The bill marks the continuation of a trend that may leave New York behind in a race to capitalize on potential jobs and tax revenue in the burgeoning industry based on marijuana for personal use. It also presents a complication for state and local law enforcement if New Yorkers begin crossing the border to buy or use marijuana products in other states.
Rensselaer County Sheriff Patrick Russo said his department was taking a wait-and-see approach to the growing legalization in neighboring states. His main concern is a possible spike in impaired drivers.
“You could go over there, come back and be impaired,” he said. “I just don’t understand it. Why would we want to pass a law that could put more impaired drivers on the road?”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill in 2014 that provided for medical marijuana dispensaries in the state but has repeatedly said that he does not believe recreational marijuana should be legalized. Medical marijuana sales in the state began in 2016.
In 2016, Massachusetts voted to legalize recreation marijuana. New Jersey’s new governor has said that he would sign a bill this year legalizing it. Politicians in Pennsylvania, which already allows medical marijuana, are discussing whether to add recreational marijuana as well.
The idea is also being debated in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware. Both Maine and New Hampshire legislatures have passed bills supporting recreational marijuana in some form.
"There has to be a tipping point (for New York)," said Nancy Udell, Manhattan-based treasurer and secretary for Empire NORML, a legalization advocacy group. "I think that tipping point is New Jersey."
The legalization movement has become more complicated after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions moved this week to pull back from previous federal guidance that essentially told federal prosecutors not to pursue marijuana cases in states that had voted to legalize the drug for recreational or medical purposes. However multiple attorneys general have said they are not planning immediate crackdown on recreational marijuana sales.
State Sen. Liz Krueger has introduced a bill to the Senate Finance Committee that would set up a framework for the legalization and regulation of recreational marijuana use in New York. The Manhattan Democrat said the backlash to Sessions' decision in Congress could advance the legalization issue further.
New York's strict medical marijuana program only allows patients to obtain cannabis if they have a qualified, debilitating or life-threatening condition that is certified by a doctor. And the plant cannot be smoked; only liquid or oil preparations, including vapor or capsules, may be used for medicinal purposes.
A spokesman for the governor did not return a call for comment on whether Vermont's decision might affect his thinking on marijuana legalization.
State Police Troop G Spokesman Mark Ciepel said there has not been a noticeable change since Massachusetts voted to legalize marijuana.
“We haven’t see an increase in arrest numbers or incidents along the Massachusetts border,” he said.
Part of that may be because Massachusetts’ Cannabis Control Commission is still setting regulations; retail sales aren’t expected to begin until July.
Ciepel said he didn’t anticipate any beefed-up patrols or checkpoints but added that State Police typically wouldn’t announce those types of law enforcement measures in advance.
In an emailed statement, a State Police spokeswoman said there were no operational changes planned in response questions about the affects of legalization in bordering states.
“State troopers will continue to enforce New York’s marijuana laws as they do now,” she wrote.
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