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Another Voice: Let's pump the brakes on marijuana legalization

By Dr. Kevin Sabet

Public hearings on marijuana legalization are underway across the state as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other policymakers in our state are looking at liberalizing the state's stance on the drug. Our policymakers must slow down and review this simple fact: Legalization is a bad idea for a state still dealing with terrible aftermath of Big Pharma and Big Tobacco.

Legalizing marijuana would unleash a commercialized pot industry marketing highly potent pot candies, cookies, sodas and pure concentrates. During today's opioid epidemic, this is the last thing we need.

According to the National Institutes of Health, 70 percent of today's illicit drug users began their journey with marijuana. The simple fact is, today's marijuana is much more potent — and harmful — than in the past. The pot industry routinely sells products with THC up to 99 percent potent; compare that to 5 percent Woodstock weed.

In Colorado, the poster-child for legalization, opioid deaths have risen every single year since legalization. In 2017, opioid deaths were at the highest levels in state history. A recent study found that marijuana use was not an effective treatment for chronic pain and did not reduce opioid use. Other studies have shown that it also creates a lower pain tolerance, necessitating the need for high amounts of opiate prescription.

Marijuana legalization is also connected to large increases in road fatalities and crashes, as marijuana can impair a driver's reaction time. Data from Washington State indicates that fatal car crashes where marijuana was involved have more than doubled since legalization.

In Colorado, marijuana-positive fatal traffic crashes increased almost 90 percent from 2013 to 2015.

Contrary to industry promises, the black market has also not subsided since states legalized marijuana. In 2016, Colorado law enforcement confiscated 7,116 pounds of marijuana, carried out 252 felony arrests, and made 346 highway interdictions of marijuana headed to 36 states. Narcotics officers in Colorado have been busy responding to the 50 percent increase in illegal growing operations across rural areas in the state.

Even social justice outcomes are going the wrong way. Public consumption and distribution arrests in Washington, D.C., nearly tripled after marijuana laws were liberalized and a disproportionate number of those arrests were among African-Americans. Pot-related arrests have increased among African-American and Hispanic teens in Colorado after legalization. Between 2012 and 2014, the percentage of Hispanic and African-American arrests for teens under 18 increased 29 percent and 58 percent, respectively.

New York would do well to slow down and learn from other states. Gov. Cuomo recently said: "We now have states that have legalized marijuana, let's look at the facts and see what happened there."

Well, we have the facts; increased substance abuse, more impaired drivers on our roads, thriving black markets, and continued racial disparities. Let's not expand this failed experiment to the Empire State.

Dr. Kevin Sabet is a former senior drug policy adviser to President Barack Obama and serves as the president and founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

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