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Editorial: Pump the brakes on legalizing pot

A popular maximum says “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.” The idea is that decisive action is better than risking delay while seeking approval.

The concept doesn’t often work when it comes to legislation, where haste can make for bad laws.

That’s the case with the generally sensible efforts to legalize recreational marijuana use in New York State. Just because legalization is happening in some nearby states, as well as Canada, is no reason for New York to jump hastily on the bandwagon.

Criminal penalties for marijuana use have too often fallen disproportionately on people of color. It’s clearly time to continue decriminalizing pot use. But that doesn’t mean we need to go all in and immediately make marijuana as easy to buy as a package of gum.

Dr. Thomas Madejski is president of the Medical Society of the State of New York and a leading voice urging the Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to go slowly on legalization. They should listen. Madejski, in a recent meeting with Buffalo News writers and editors, said that legalizing recreational marijuana is not “in the interest of patients and our society.”

Madejski pointed out that research is lagging on the long-term effects of marijuana on humans. For one thing, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug at the federal level. That means under federal law marijuana has “no currently accepted medical use” and a high potential for abuse, giving researchers hurdles to jump when studying cannabis.

A recent source of data that researchers are studying is from Colorado, where legalized marijuana use began in 2014.

Madejski says in Colorado there was a 70 percent increase in hospitalizations connected with marijuana use between between 2013 and 2015. Fatalities in which the driver tested positive for cannabis increased by 80 percent in the same period, he said.

Also, once cannabis becomes widely available, more children will have access to it.

“There is pretty good evidence that, up to age 25, that marijuana usage does change brain development and probably not in a positive way,” Madejski said.

Economic interests will put pressure on Albany lawmakers to cash in on legalization. Massachusetts this month opened its first two pot stores. New Jersey’s newly elected governor wants to fast-track legalization there. And suppliers couldn’t keep up with demand when legal pot sales began in mid-October in Canada.

When states legalize recreational pot they can also regulate and tax it. The thought of New Yorkers crossing state borders to spend their pot dollars won’t sit well with our lawmakers.

With Democrats now controlling both houses of the Legislature and the governorship, “big pot” will step up its lobbying efforts to get a recreational marijuana bill passed.

Along with collecting more data about the effects of cannabis, lawmakers need to craft sensible regulations, with input from medical experts. In Michigan, whose voters this month made it the 10th state – and first in the Midwest – to approve recreational marijuana use, pot purchasers must be 21. There will be a state licensing system for marijuana businesses, and municipalities in Michigan have the option to ban or restrict marijuana businesses.

Madejski favors recommended regulations from the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Among them are cannabis sales begin at age 25, due to brain development concerns, and that pot be sold in state-run stores.

Eventually legalization will happen here, and as a goal, it’s the right approach. The existing law is ignored in droves and is unequally enforced, sometimes with dire consequences. It can’t survive.

But there’s no need to race into it. There’s no prize for being first, but there are dangerous implications to getting it wrong.

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