Jefferson Co. DA discusses concerns about state’s new marijuana law

Jefferson County District Attorney Kristyna S. Mills. Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — District Attorney Kristyna S. Mills doesn’t want her light-heartedness toward the legalization of marijuana to be taken as a signal that she’s not concerned.

“It’s a political thing,” said Charles Donoghue, the city chief of police. “We enforce the law, so we’re going to do what we’re supposed to do.”

In the same camp is Ms. Mills, who’s been the Jefferson County District Attorney since 2015. She said she has several grave concerns, but her approach is multi-faceted and aimed at fairness in knowing the law is the law, and now is the time to make a game plan and move on. She’s not necessarily for it, but at the same time her office has bigger concerns.

The two-time election winning district attorney with nearly 25 years of prosecutorial experience spoke with the Times about how her office is approaching the legalization of marijuana, expunging past convictions, regulating and reinvesting into communities and challenges law enforcement might face.

Question: Just to start, where do you stand on the legislation?

Answer: I’m not necessarily for it. I don’t think that it’s going to further enhance our society’s ability to do their jobs, our motivation and things like that. I don’t really find marijuana to be much of a motivator when it comes to living your life productively, so for that reason I’m not for it. Although I will say I don’t find that marijuana is the worst thing ever. It’s not like they legalized heroin, which would be terrible. Marijuana doesn’t have the same physical effects, and there are some beneficial effects to marijuana and I recognize that. However, I do feel that there is a huge possibility that the black market is just going to explode. You’re going to have to buy legal marijuana at these dispensaries. It’s going to get people liking the effects of marijuana, they’re going to buy it legally, but then it’s going to become too expensive because it’s just going to be taxed so high. I also have concerns with some of the lesser aspects of the law. One of the things is that you cannot use the odor of burnt marijuana to search a vehicle, whereas before you could do that. The issue with that is how are you supposed to even determine whether the person is in compliance with the law. It’s still illegal to possess over three ounces, so how do you even get to the point to investigate those cases? Unfortunately, a lot of the harder drug cases, they are determined that we get into those vehicles because of the odor of marijuana. So I think you’re going to leave a lot of those drugs on the street.

Q: So you mean how could you even search to see how much they are possessing or if they’re possessing other drugs?

A: Correct. I definitely think that’s an issue. Obviously I have concerns about operating a motor vehicle while impaired by cannabis.

You’ve answered roughly four of my questions already. That’s what I was going to ask — where does driving while impaired by drugs rank on your radar?

That’s a huge concern. If you look at other states that have legalized marijuana, an increase in those types of cases has been seen. It is also a concern with younger kids using it even though it is supposed to be 21 and over, it’s just going to be so much more readily available.

How do you measure for marijuana right now? There’s not a Breathalyzer.

Nope. It’s all based on a urine test and a drug recognition expert evaluation.

That’s based on a police officer’s observation?

Right but they have police officers who are specially trained to recognize drug impairment.

Yes, the sheriff’s office has one.

Yes, and I think the city police department has one or two and state police have a couple.

I want to ask where you’re at with this statement: ‘All right, it’s done. It’s legal. We can’t do anything about it now, let’s just do our best.’ Is that on your mind, too?

That’s exactly my attitude, that it is the law now and we’re going to have to find a way to work with it, and we’re going to have to find a way to keep the community safe despite it. Once we really absorb the law, which is literally a tome — it’s very long and convoluted, but once I really absorb it, I am going to have to sit down with law enforcement and we’re going to have to talk about different ways of doing things.

How will your office be affected when it comes to expunging past convictions?

Honestly, we don’t have a ton. Most people I think served their sentences, if there were sentences. Most people don’t go to jail for marijuana. That’s kind of a misnomer. There are very few people in state prison for marijuana, and if they are it’s for giant amounts. I have a pending case right now that’s 400 pounds. Those are the types of people that you see actually doing any kind of jail or prison time. I’m going to have to look at the expungement law. It really may not be a heavy lift for our office. We always find a way to make it work.

Seeing other district attorneys’ opinions and how they approach wanting to legalize it, they talk about how simply being charged with possession, not convicted, still has an effect on buying a house or gaining employment.

I don’t know how. It kind of depends on what you’ve got going on or whether you were charged with a misdemeanor. The violation itself, those things get sealed anyway. If you’re walking around with a joint, or you’re walking around with a personal-use amount, that’s been decriminalized for years. So a simple unlawful possession of marijuana, those cases get sealed so nobody should ever know about it. Now if you’re charged with more than personal use, or if you’re selling it, there may be some kind of stigma attached to that.

I wonder, in your mind, in how many cases are you prosecuting marijuana possession charges but there are additional charges?

I would say that’s more the norm. More often than not, marijuana charges are ancillary and there are other charges — weapons charges, other drugs, that type of thing. And I will tell you, very often times if we’ve got marijuana charges, as well as heroin charges and gun charges, I don’t even indict the marijuana. I just leave it alone. But yes I would say more often than not, it’s not just marijuana. In years past, yes, you could get a ticket for unlawful possession of marijuana, and we might give you a disorderly conduct and keep it moving, and you would have to pay a fine. But nowadays, it’s rare.

As far as preparation in your office, or preparing actively, is there anything you guys are running around trying to do as far as how you’re going to prosecute it in the future?

No. We’re just kind of moving on. We have far bigger fish to fry in our office right now than marijuana. Obviously, as I’ve said, I am concerned about this, and I don’t want to take away from the fact that I am concerned about this, but the law is the law and we have to move on. I have grave concerns when you’re allowed to possess five pounds in your own house. Who’s going to smoke five pounds for personal use? That’s just going to make the black market even bigger. And I have very big concerns, when the black market expands, about what’s going into our marijuana. We’ve seen marijuana laced with fentanyl and other terrible drugs. So I have grave concerns about this, so I don’t want my light-heartedness to be taken as I am not concerned; however I also recognized that what’s done is done. I’m not going to sit here and cry over spilt milk because there’s nothing I can do. I just have to mop the milk up and keep it moving.

Some DAs who support the legalization are saying, by legalizing, you can regulate it, try to get more money for the state and reinvest it into communities of color as you address inequalities of prosecution of marijuana in the past. Do you think that’s a problem here?

I don’t necessarily think that’s a problem here as much as it is maybe in other areas of the state. Back to your question of taxing it and reinvesting the money. That’s all well and good when people are actually buying it from dispensaries, but it is going to be extremely expensive. I don’t think you’re going to be seeing, certainly not poverty-stricken communities, buying it from dispensaries. I’m not going to distinguish between black versus white communities. I’m just going to stick with poverty-laden communities. OK, if you say ‘We’re going to legalize this drug because people are unfairly prosecuted because these are the communities that use this drug,’ that goes right back to my fear of what we are doing to these communities. If they are then going to start using this drug more frequently, doesn’t that keep them down ultimately?

Meaning because it is so expensive?

Not because it is so expensive but because of what we were talking about earlier on — the motivation. That’s my concern, the question of ‘Is it going to serve the purpose of raising these communities up?’

I’ve met a few productive stoners in my day.

And maybe I’m completely wrong about that. I don’t know. Maybe there are people who can do that. I am not the type of person who can go out at lunch and have an alcoholic beverage and then go back to work. I can’t do it, so I don’t know whether or not this is going to be a good thing or a bad thing for those communities.

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