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Marijuana legalization hearing includes ... broccoli, bar fights and Bills games

Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn talked about vegetables and bar fights and State Assembly members brought up Buffalo Bills games as the statewide debate about the possible legalization of marijuana came to Buffalo.

"This leafy substance, my friends, is not broccoli, OK? It's not good for you," said Flynn, the first witness to speak at Monday’s State Assembly public hearing on proposals to legalize, regulate and tax the adult use of marijuana in New York State.

“Marijuana is not good for a human being – it's not good for you," he said before an estimated 75 people in City Hall’s Common Council chambers, before he recognized the benefits of medical marijuana.

Afterward, a panel of Assembly members, led by Buffalo’s Crystal Peoples-Stokes, offered cons to his cons.

Peoples-Stokes said that she didn't advocate people smoking marijuana, "but I'm going to call it cannabis, because even though it's not broccoli, it's grown from a seed, just like broccoli.

"There are two parts of this plant, some of it is CBD and some if it is THC," she said, referring to cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol. "They both have different properties and serve differing purposes. The more you get into the science of it, there are some really good ways that it can be used, not just medicinally, but for a decent quality of life."

The exchanges between Flynn and Assembly members, which took up nearly the opening hour of the hearing, were among the more memorable moments of the session.

Flynn also said that the legalization of marijuana would "make our community unsafe" because police officers would possibly lose the ability to search a vehicle based on the smell of marijuana alone.

"I am getting guns off our streets, with these kind of searches," Flynn said. "If we eliminate that possibility, I am not going to get numerous guns off the street. I implore you, if this law passes, that there is some kind of carve-out ... where law enforcement officers have some ability to be able to search the car and to be able to get the guns off the street."

Peoples-Stokes offered that the criminalization of marijuana led to many of the guns being there in the first place.

"I don't support people smoking cannabis, but here's a fact: They do. They already do, and they do in very big numbers," she said. "And they do in numbers so large that there's already a multiple billion-dollar industry, but it's mostly underground. And it does call for the need for guns you want to keep out of the community, because people are protecting turf that they think belongs to them."

Peoples-Stokes also addressed the searches Flynn referenced.

"Law enforcement can smell cannabis in a car, and want to search it, but how many times do they do that after a Buffalo Bills game? Very rarely. But they do it on the East Side of Buffalo," she said to a round of applause in the chamber. "We've got to try and find a way to stop law enforcement from wanting to enforce some laws in some communities that they don't enforce in others.

"Because there's no question that more white people use and smoke marijuana or cannabis than black people or brown people do, but the fact of the matter is we're still the ones getting arrested for it, we're still the ones going to jail for it, and we're still the ones having an impact on our communities, our children taken from us by social services, our lives just totally destroyed.

"I am with you Mr. DA, people should not smoke. But since they do, I think it's incumbent on us as legislators to figure out a way to legislate it so it doesn't have a negative impact on some people and not on others. This is one of the ways to do that."

Flynn acknowledged that marijuana laws disproportionately affect African-Americans, that the War on Drugs has been a failure, advocated strongly for Western New York's opioid court in handling drug offenses and recognized the potential economic benefits for the state.

But he also asserted that "children in our community are going to have easier access to marijuana" if it is legalized for adults. Peoples-Stokes countered by quoting data from states which legalized marijuana that said that use among young people did not go up in those states.

In a lighter moment, Flynn said the use of alcohol is involved in more physically violent crimes than marijuana.

"You’re not going to see many bar fights with guys smoking marijuana, I don’t think," Flynn said with a smile.

Most of the 14 other speakers spoke in support of legalizing marijuana due to criminal justice, public health concerns and social and economic equity demands, among other subject areas.

"As it relates to serving the public good, I believe that once we legalize marijuana, it will significantly positively impact the number of people of color who have been arrested, disproportionately, for the illegal possession of marijuana," said Masten Councilman Ulysees O. Wingo Sr. "The disproportion enforcement of marijuana has stifled our communities."

Other scheduled speakers included Buffalo native Ebele Ifedigbo, co-executive director of the Hood Indicator; Rev. Kirk Laubenstein of the Coalition for Economic Justice; India Walton of Open Buffalo; Robert N. Convissar, the chief defender of the Assigned Counsel Program; Rebecca Town of Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo; Jomo Akono of A-Free-Ka Cultural Radio Show; John Washington of PUSH Buffalo; Mary Kruger of Roc NORML; Steven VanDeWalle of Tiva; and Aleece Burgio of the New York State Bar Association Cannabis Committee.

This was the second of four statewide public hearings scheduled by the Assembly. The first was Oct. 16 in Manhattan. The next will be Tuesday in Binghamton and the final session will be Dec. 3.

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