WATERTOWN — The legalization of marijuana in New York state has been touted as discouraging for the black market and as something that will increase state revenue, but a question for many is whether that is actually true, or if the legalization will do more harm than good.
During the May meeting of the Alliance for Better Communities on Tuesday evening, guest speaker Tony Spurlock, a sheriff in Douglas County, Colo., discussed his experience with a variety of issues pertaining to the legalization of recreational marijuana.
On the virtual Zoom meeting and representing the community were faith leaders, law enforcement officials and representatives from different organizations like PIVOT and the North Country Family Health Center, educators, local politicians, concerned county residents and more.
“Whether you like marijuana, you think the sale of marijuana is good for your community or not, I’m here to tell you there’s going to be unintended consequences,” Mr. Spurlock said. “Those consequences are going to impact your juveniles and your young people, and it’s going to impact your law enforcement, because it’s not going to slow down the illegal trafficking of drugs.”
Between 2000 and 2008, Colorado began its medical marijuana program, which went from a very small number to quite a large amount of medical marijuana card holders. Basically, what that meant was that a person could go to any physician who held a title of doctor and was licensed in the state of Colorado, to be issued a marijuana card. That card would give the holder permission to grow marijuana in their home and be in possession of marijuana.
Mr. Spurlock said that really started the issues Colorado started to have.
“I know that there is a meaningful reason for some doctors to prescribe medical marijuana or marijuana synthetic to certain patients who have certain kinds of illnesses,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that’s a very small number of our society that would use that kind of drug for some kind of treatment as compared to the amount of people that were applying for the medical marijuana cards simply so they could just grow their own marijuana in their houses and use it.”
In November 2012 and through 2014, Colorado changed the constitutional amendment that would allow recreational purpose of marijuana for anyone under the age of 21. That in itself really made some differences because it opened up the ability to have retail stores and cultivation operations, Mr. Spurlock said.
What that really meant for the state of Colorado was cartels bringing farmers up, human trafficking people from other countries to bring them up and force them to labor in the farms. Mr. Spurlock said there was no protection for them and they were living in horrible conditions in Colorado’s national forests.
In 2017, a bill was passed restricting how many plants people could have. The most recent bill prohibits custodial arrest for anyone in possession of two ounces of marijuana or less. Essentially, law enforcement officers could still write up summons, but it affected law enforcement’s ability in going after other kinds of collateral criminal activity around the drug world.
“One of the big issues was that we legalize marijuana and we allow it to happen in all of our shops and we make it commercial, we tax it,” Mr. Spurlock said. “Well, essentially what happened is all of the restrictions that the government put on to sell legalized marijuana drove the price of the marijuana up and the black market was still able to function because they could sell marijuana just like they had been doing for years on the street at a lower price than what you could legitimately go in the store and buy it for.”
Some other unintended consequences of legalizing recreational marijuana shared by Mr. Spurlock was traffic crashes having gone up by 10%, and 25% of all fatal crashes having marijuana residue or marijuana concentrate in the body stream at autopsy after the crash, and the largest increase of users of marijuana being between 18 and 25 years old.
Mr. Spurlock said one of the tragedies that has continued to occur from this increased use from younger adults is the increase in overdoses, mainly due to edibles and marijuana concentrate, with people thinking the edibles aren’t working and ending up taking much more than the body can handle.
THC levels from 2021 marijuana, compared to the THC level when Mr. Spurlock was a high school kid in 1976 is completely different, he said. It is so much higher and so much more dangerous now, he added.
“We saw an increase of heroin overdoses in use by those under the age of 21,” Mr. Spurlock said. “We attribute that to the marijuana cost increasing, and the heroin availability by the cartels to bring it into the metro area reducing the price. Then you’d have someone who is used to smoking marijuana and not used to either smoking heroin or injecting heroin, and you ended up having overdoses and deaths, and we did see a number of those.”
Due to increased restrictions on marijuana and more of a black market demand for it, fires also increased in the state — mainly electrical fires due to those buying or leasing houses for the purposes of growing marijuana for the black market. In areas with dispensaries, armed robberies increased. The other part of that was a clear increase in gang activity, Mr. Spurlock said.
Though money was set aside in Colorado from the sale of legal marijuana for the purposes of education, that didn’t happen the way it was designed in the law, Mr. Spurlock said, with certain jurisdictions having dispensaries all over and yet no information in the community about the impact of marijuana. He likened it to decades ago when everyone bought and smoked cigarettes until the surgeon general came out and said it wasn’t good for them. Then all sorts of educational programs came out to allow people to make responsible decisions.
“I would encourage you to continue to fight against your legislators to slow it down, or make it still incredibly restrictive to sell, dispense or grow marijuana inside your state,” Mr. Spurlock said to those in virtual attendance at the meeting. “It’s not good for your state, it won’t be helpful, you’re not gonna have a lot of money, and you’re not going to benefit from it by any means.”
The next Alliance for Better Communities meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, June 15, from 2 to 3 p.m.