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Legalizing marijuana in NY may ease opiate crisis, advocate says

A drug-policy consultant will visit Buffalo on Tuesday to argue that New York should legalize recreational marijuana not simply because, in his view, the current system squanders police resources, targets certain minorities and fosters a dangerous, underground economy.

Legalizing marijuana, says Nicolas Eyle, can help counter the deadly opiate epidemic sweeping the nation because studies have shown people in medical-marijuana states will select pot over more dangerous drugs to relieve pain. He reasons that more people would reject opiates if marijuana were more widely available through legal means.

"If marijuana has been proven in states that have medical marijuana to counteract opioid use, then I don't see why it wouldn't be any different if people could buy it without a prescription," Eyle told The Buffalo News in a recent interview. "If you could just go buy it, it would solve a lot of problems."

Voters in eight states have allowed the recreational use of marijuana, setting aside studies showing that marijuana smoking poses long-term risks to the lungs, the immune system and memory. The eight include New York's Northeast neighbors Massachusetts and Maine.

But at this point, the Empire State remains a long shot. Bills to legalize pot are not drawing a critical mass of support in the State Senate.

Still, Eyle and other advocates believe the day will come.

"Marijuana prohibition is obviously not working," he said. "If prohibition worked, we wouldn't be having this discussion."

Eyle, who lives in Syracuse, founded ReconsiDer, a national drug forum that has cast a skeptical light on America's drug wars. He has been active with similar organizations and will speak at a news conference in Buffalo Tuesday as a board member of NY Grows, a group hoping to make New York the ninth state to legalize recreational marijuana.

Nicolas Eyle says the prohibition on marijuana isn't working.

NY Grows is talking up a bill that would allow people 18 and over to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana and up to six marijuana plants, while continuing to prohibit pot smoking in public places. The board members, who include former Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra, say legalization could raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the state treasury each year as retailers pay for licenses and consumers pay an excise tax on the product. Giambra and other advocates say the fortune could be plowed into major infrastructure projects.

They see other benefits: Police and the courts could see fewer defendants accused of marijuana-related crimes and could operate more efficiently. A violent underground distribution network would be replaced by legitimate companies licensed to trade in recreational marijuana. Minorities would no longer bear the brunt of arrests and citations for marijuana sales and possession.

In 1977, New York made the possession of small amounts of marijuana a violation, not a crime, as long as it was kept out of public view. But over the decades, police have found reason to charge blacks and Hispanics with misdemeanor possession counts more often than whites. The New York Civil Liberties Union in 2013 released a study showing that black people involved in routine traffic stops are far more likely to be charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession than white people.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo this year proposed completely decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana even if a user brought it into public view. But he still wants sellers charged and did not propose legalization.

While NY Grows sees merit in the pending legalization bill, the proposal has little chance of becoming law, at least in this legislative session. Even if the Assembly bill, sponsored by Buffalo Democrat Crystal Peoples-Stokes, makes it through the Democratic-controlled chamber, there is a slim chance of passage in the State Senate. The main sponsor there is Manhattan Democrat Liz Krueger. But the Senate is controlled by Republicans and a small group of breakaway Democrats – Krueger not among them. Her bill fizzled last year, too.

Senate Republicans in 2014 went along with a proposal to legalize medical marijuana, agreeing that it's a humane way to treat certain patients and will raise money for the state. That gives today's legalization advocates a glimmer of hope. But it's also a development they hope to leverage by arguing that legalizing recreational marijuana could help with the opiate epidemic, just as medical marijuana appears to do.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health reported that fewer people use opiates in states with medical marijuana laws. Researchers examined data from almost 70,000 people killed in car accidents during a 14-year span – which ended before New York allowed medical marijuana – and found that fewer victims tested positive for opiates in medical marijuana states. The researchers were examining the likelihood that patients would turn to marijuana rather than opiates if allowed, not whether opiates were factors in fatal crashes.

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale R. Burstein is one of the county officials on the front lines of the opiate crisis. When the legalization bill came up in 2015, she expressed her worries about marijuana's harmful effects on the health and development of adolescents. "Research has shown that any policy that leads to increased marijuana use by adults, such as legalization, leads to increased access for adolescents, despite age restrictions," she said at the time.

On Monday, Burstein continued to express concerns about legalizing marijuana, despite the study. Its authors, she noted, stated that their observations remain preliminary. And she said opiates and medical marijuana are not the only treatments for chronic pain.

“Other options exist," Burstein said, "such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, Tylenol, some seizure medications, physical therapy, acupuncture, and behavioral counseling." She said an adverse consequence of medical marijuana is the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.

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