ALBANY — Recreational marijuana sales and use for adults 21 years of age and older is legal …
WATERTOWN — They might not be opposed to medical marijuana, but many law enforcement officials in the north country are against the full legalization that occurred Wednesday, saying it’s an excuse for revenue, difficult to enforce and further advancing for illegal dealers.
Jefferson County Sheriff Colleen M. O’Neill said the day had been coming for years: when the state government would legalize recreational marijuana for adults. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the legislation into law Wednesday morning.
The state Legislature debated into the late evening hours Tuesday, but the measure, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, ultimately passed in both legislative chambers on Tuesday.
The Senate passed the measure with a vote of 40-23 late Tuesday afternoon, and the measure passed the Assembly by a vote of 100-49 late Tuesday night.
“For 30 years we’ve been enforcing laws against marijuana because it’s dangerous,” Sheriff O’Neill said, “and because a state finds a revenue source by legalizing something that’s been dangerous all along, it’s hard to imagine that any good is going to come from that.”
Marijuana sales are expected to bring $350 million to the state per year, and the industry could create between 30,000 and 60,000 jobs, according to the governor’s office.
She said she thinks the main beneficiaries from the legalization will be drug dealers since it will be legal to possess up to three ounces at a time.
“It’s going to be very difficult for a police officer to prove where it came from,” she said. “If the proof they have to show is a tax receipt, what’s going to prevent them from just holding on to just one tax receipt for an indefinite amount of time and carry around marijuana they could have gotten anywhere?”
The state Association of Chiefs of Police and state Sheriff’s Association oppose the legislation because of traffic safety standards and concerns.
Driving issues, including probable cause and gathering evidence of people operating vehicles under the influence of marijuana, were major sticking points for legislative leaders during negotiations.
If passed, the law will no longer permit police to consider the smell of marijuana to be probable cause to search a vehicle. Police can continue to use the smell of marijuana to be proof of driving while under the influence, but the smell of marijuana on an individual or in a building will no longer be considered reasonable cause to search the property or person.
Sheriff O’Neill said she’s not opposed to medical marijuana as long as it’s used within the guidelines of the medical professional who prescribed it, but enforcing it on a mass-legalization scale is different, she said.
There’s no chemical test for marijuana that could be performed at a traffic stop, making officers rely on field sobriety tests and make a Common Law DWI arrest, which is based mainly on their observation during the stop. There will likely be more training, but there’s hardly enough funding for officers to become drug recognition experts, she added. The sheriff’s office currently has one, she added, and another is scheduled to begin training shortly and not finish until the end of the year.
“This isn’t something that we can just pull everyone together in an afternoon and teach them,” Sheriff O’Neill said, adding that she thinks black market cannabis dealers are going to thrive just like peddlers of other drugs.
“I’m not saying that marijuana is at that level of danger as heroin by any means,” she said. “But of all the effort that we put into taking something as dangerous as heroin off the streets, the drug dealers still thrive in that department.”
Lewis County Sheriff Michael P. Carpinelli said Wednesday after the governor officially signed the legislation into law that he’s less worried about what might happen for officers suspecting marijuana during a traffic stop and more worried about the message legalizing it will send to kids.
He’s also skeptical of the state’s intentions with the legislation.
“They don’t care about your personal freedoms,” he said of lawmakers in Albany. “They care about your tax money.”
Black River Police Chief Steven C. Wood said he’s definitely in favor of medical marijuana and has yet to form an opinion on the newly signed legalization. He said he’s worried about how employers will approach it, and how users might drive while under the influence at a higher rate.
“Medical marijuana is a natural product,” he said. “It’s helping individuals that have diseases. I just think that people are going to be confused about this and think that they can go about their lives smoking whenever they want.”
Johnson Newspaper Corp. reporter Kate Lisa contributed to this report.