OSWEGO — Oswego County officials are responding to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Monday bombshell that his popular promise of legal recreational adult use of marijuana will not be included in next month’s proposed state budget for 2019-2020.
“I am no longer confident marijuana will be done by the budget,” Cuomo told media at a press conference in Albany this week. “There is a wide divide on marijuana. I believe ultimately we can get there. I believe we must get there. I don’t believe we get there in two weeks.”
Cuomo has led a public charge in recent months to aggressively pursue legalization efforts after years of endorsing penalties for possession and use of marijuana. His change in heart has forced municipalities, law enforcement and health care workers to consider the impact of the upcoming change.
Oswego County legislators, officials and prevention and treatment advocates echoed concern and in some cases support for impending legalization.
Regardless of when recreational marijuana use is allowed statewide, county and municipal government programs and services stand to bear the brunt of the drug policy’s impacts, and advocates here are preparing for what that future looks like.
“The bottom line is that it’s better to have no policy than shortsighted policy,” said a statement by the New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC).
Nine-term Assemblyman Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, told The Palladium-Times he was “pleased” the issue would not be taken up in the 2019-2020 fiscal year budget.
“At the very least, this proposal — which would have considerable consequences for our whole state — deserves its own debate, separate and apart from the budget,” Barclay said Wednesday.
Stephen Acquario, Executive Director of the NYSAC, said that public policy should not be hurried and should be about “doing good.”
“No harm to the public should be done,” he said. “Will taxpayers once again end up subsidizing the long-term effects of this industry in our communities? If the state opts in to authorize adult use cannabis, counties need state resources to support any policy change from day one of the implementation.”
County Administrator Phil Church is on the Board of Directors of NYSAC, and Republican legislator Terry Wilbur sits on the agricultural committee for the non-partisan advocacy group, whose current stance on the issue is a focus on decriminalization and undoing the damage caused to communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana charges in lieu of state funding for legalization.
Church echoed Acquario’s comments, saying the county legislature is still “having internal discussions,” and is weighing in the impacts of what legalization could mean for the county.
“The revenue that the state intends to share with counties if this is legalized is wholly inadequate for the anticipated cost we are all going to have to bear,” Church said. “The impact of all this will fall on county services.”
Further, Church said the implications of legalizing the substance extend beyond just “allowing a previously illegal drug to be legal.”
“(Legalization) impacts law enforcements, addiction services and health services. It is not simply merely allowing a previously illegal drug to be legal without any consequences, there will be far-reaching consequences,” Church warned.
In every region of the state, NYSAC President Charles H. Nesbitt said counties provide the programs and services referenced by Church. Without sufficient revenue to support the services that ensure public health and safety, the group says counties are not willing to take this gamble.
“We simply can’t afford to,” the group said.
Cuomo is pushing for legalization efforts and funding in part to collect levies on the substance, after a clear need to increase tax revenues emerging from the 2018 federal tax overhaul, which resulted in a more than $3.75 billion shortfall for the Empire State over the next two years.
But legal pot in New York state, and specifically in Oswego County, won’t come easy.
“I support the legalization of marijuana,” said county Legislator Tom Drumm, D-Oswego. “I long have. I think it’s time to bring this issue out of the shadows. I think the ability to legalize, tax it and regulate it is without a doubt the future.”
Drumm echoes the county advocacy organization’s call for decriminalization successes prior to full-scale legalization.
“Perhaps most important for me, is the criminal justice aspect,” he told The Palladium-Times on Wednesday. “Far too long in this country have we been putting away low level marijuana offenders on the tax payers time. It’s time to modernize.“
Local prevention advocates acknowledge that — although a publicly popular proposition statewide — a quick move to recreational marijuana legalization would add to the litany of issues they already face.
“It would be an addition to a list of challenges for the Oswego County Prevention Coalitions effort to keep our youth drug free,” said OCPC Coordinator Tyler Ahart. “We will continue to combat adolescent substance abuse and manipulative marketing practices that target youth using community resources and local support.“