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Sheriffs oppose legalizing marijuana across New York

Joining sheriffs and police chiefs from across the state, the sheriffs of Ontario, Seneca, Wayne, and Yates counties are voicing their opposition to legalizing recreational marijuana.

“We are in the midst of an opioid epidemic. I would suggest this is an inappropriate time to consider any type of decriminalization of marijuana,” Wayne County Sheriff Barry Virts. “When so many of our friends and loved ones are battling substance abuse problems, it seems counter-intuitive to go in the opposite direction and legalize what is currently an illicit substance.”

Virts is the incoming president of the New York State Sheriffs’ Association, which recently issued a press release opposing the legalization being backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The idea is also opposed by county public health officials, the Parent Teacher Association of New York, the American Automobile Association and the national organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

“In states that have legalized marijuana, traffic-related deaths increased,” Ontario County Sheriff Kevin Henderson said. “New York addressed the issue of driving while intoxicated in the early ‘90s, and with strict enforcement, lower BAC (blood-alcohol content) tolerances and education we observed a decline with DWI-related fatalities. With the proposed legalization, we will see an increase in driving while ability impaired-related arrests and I am sure fatalities that will go along with it.”

Sheriffs across the state cited data from Colorado, which shows annual marijuana-related traffic deaths increased by 151 percent since legalization in that state. They also showed data from other states that have legalized marijuana that teen use of marijuana rises sharply when adult use is legalized.

“In 2017, Gov. Cuomo correctly pointed out that marijuana is a ‘gateway drug’ that leads to the abuse of other drugs. In 2019 he claims it is not,” said John Aresta, police chief of the Nassau County community of Malverne. “What has changed other than the desire for easy money in the state coffers?”

Virts, who testified at a state Assembly hearing on the subject last month, said the vast majority of arrests his office makes are drug related — either for directly dealing drugs or crimes committed to fuel an addiction, such as burglary, robbery, assault, and fraud.

Virts added that an increase in marijuana use would be taxing to sheriff’s offices statewide, forcing them to hire more drug recognition experts — commonly known as DREs. In 2017, the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office made 16 arrests for driving while ability impaired by drugs, which was 12 percent of the impaired driving arrests in the county.

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