Local Police Assess Challenges Of Legal Marijuana

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Police chiefs on the South Fork this week articulated some of their concerns following Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signing of sweeping legislation that decriminalized and legalized recreational-use marijuana, taking care to underscore that they’d wait and see what lawmakers and residents of their jurisdictions had to say.

“We’re entering a new era that has a number of complications that we’ll have to sort through,” Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki said this week.

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. voted against legislation legalizing marijuana late last month, citing local police’s concerns, in part, for that position.

“I was particularly concerned by the arguments made by education, health and law enforcement professionals in my district,” he said. “While the legislation has some laudable goals and beneficial provisions, the bill will ultimately create more problems for public health and safety than it will resolve.”

Chief Skrynecki sits on the narcotics and dangerous drugs committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and as such has had the chance to hear what counterparts across the nation experienced when marijuana was legalized in their states.

“We repeatedly hear about a significant increase in driving while under the influence of drugs,” he said of California, Colorado and other areas where recreational use of marijuana is now legal.

Charging a motorist with driving with their ability impaired by drugs, particularly marijuana, is more difficult than standard alcohol DWI enforcement. According to Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin McGuire, “Alcohol is easy to figure who is intoxicated. But for marijuana, I’m not sure if there is a level in the blood that indicates intoxication or just prior use.

“I have seen numerous drug recognition experts perform testing,” he continued. “It is a very long process. It includes taking vital signs like blood pressure and pulse and numerous other things.”

Becoming a certified drug recognition expert, or DRE, takes, said Chief Skrynecki, “a tremendous amount of training.” Calling a DRE to the scene to determine whether a motorist is intoxicated by drugs is challenging and ultimately expensive, he said.

Having such an expert on staff is very difficult for small agencies to handle, Chief McGuire added.

The lack of an established test to determine a specific level of THC in the blood, which would specifically support a driving under the influence of marijuana charge, is “a major hurdle to enforcement,” East Hampton Town Police Chief MIchael Sarlo pointed out.

The press release from Governor Cuomo heralding the measure notes that funding for DREs is included in the legislation.

The law signed on March 31 calls for the State Department of Health to select one or more institutions of higher education to conduct a study looking at ways to assess whether a driver is impaired by cannabis use. The test would have to be able to distinguish between a driver’s cognitive ability impaired by use of marijuana and the presence of pot in a person’s system due to habitual use.

A report on the research is due to the DOH, the State Legislature and the governor by the end of 2022 — well over a year after the legalization of recreational use of marijuana. From there, the DOH will be authorized to issue regulations and certify a test based on the research that produces accurate results.

The state has adopted what Lieutenant Daniel Hartman of the Quogue Village Police explained is an “open burn” law. That means people are free to smoke marijuana in public.

Chiefs in other parts of the country made note of a quality of life issue that arose from unfettered public smoking, Chief Skrynecki reported. Chief Sarlo offered, “Most law enforcement have concerns with the open burning issue, allowing marijuana to be smoked anywhere tobacco is allowed, as other intoxicants, such as alcohol, are not allowed to be consumed in public spaces.” He said he wasn’t sure how permitting the smoking in public made sense.

Lt. Hartman painted a picture of walking down the street with children and having to cross over to avoid a cloud of acrid smoke produced by legal pot users.

There was actually an uptick in illegal sales in some areas where pot was legalized, Chief Skrynecki said, reporting what colleagues told the committee. Legal sales require licenses and taxes, and purveyors may pass that overhead on to customers, while those selling illegally can undercut prices. It creates a situation where people sell illegally to others, who can then smoke legally.

Last month, in an interview with Politico, New York U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer said a comprehensive reform bill was on the table to legalize marijuana at the federal level. In the interim, however, marijuana continues to be illegal federally, creating a conundrum for law enforcement.

It’s a dilemma, Chief Skrynecki acknowledged. “The federal government has chosen not to enforce federal laws locally,” he said. “You could be walking down the street smoking a joint, and you’re still violating a federal law, and an FBI agent — not that they’re going to — could come in and arrest you for a federal offense.” The contradiction, he said, “has created a law enforcement dilemma for years.”

Still, the chief and his colleges were pragmatic about the road ahead against the backdrop of the new legislation.

“I put out guidance on the legislation for our officers, and we’ll adjust,” Lt. Hartman said this week.

Said Chief McGuire, “I would advocate for banning the sale in the village. We have enough people.”

So far, 15 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana use. Many more have either decriminalized pot, legalized medical marijuana or both.

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