Local law enforcement heads respond to legalization of marijuana

John Christensen
The Chronicle Express

Yates County Sheriff Spike and PYPD Chief Dunham voice concerns over recreational marijuana in the community

PENN YAN – New York state has joined the growing number of states which have decided to legalize the recreational use of marijuana and remove the past convictions of those who were caught using it before. Governor Andrew Cuomo made no bones in his motives; state revenue. With legalization comes the opportunity for new businesses, including agriculture, and the excise taxes planned will provide more funds for the state coffers. There is also expected to be a lightened burden on the court system as most marijuana-based arrests will no longer be included on court dockets.

There are other concerns that accompany this new stream of revenue, however. And with no surprise, it is foremost on the minds of the people who have until now been tasked with the interdiction of what was once considered a dangerous drug. Yates County Sheriff Ron Spike, one of the longest serving Sheriffs in the state, and Penn Yan Police Chief Thomas Dunham, both have considerable experience in drug enforcement and public safety. They offer their observations on the new law, and the potential impacts they see for the local community.

Yates County Sheriff Ron Spike

"I spell marihuana with an ‘h’ as that is the spelling in the penal law. However, many spell it marijuana with a ‘j.’ However the law’s focus is on the term ‘cannabis.’

"Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act of 2021 and New York now joins its neighbor states of Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Jersey in allowing recreational cannabis for use by adults 21 years and older. The Governor and other State leaders have also cited social justice as a driving force behind the legalization effort. However, the goal heard most often was to generate new revenue sources. Medical marihuana has been legal in N.Y. State since 2014, ironically marihuana is still illegal under federal law. About 15 states have similar legislation and several others looking at it.

"Interestingly, the Sheriffs’ in Colorado (previously legalized) that I have talked to tell me that once legalized was established that the “black market” flourishes to avoid its taxation, and the higher content of THC may have long term health effects. However, proponents will counter most arguments. 

"Law enforcement is concerned that this may lead to increases in driving motor vehicles while impaired. Other states have seen motor vehicle collisions increase related to marihuana. Police are used to having a number associated in determining intoxication from alcohol as an example .08% BAC, or more is considered DWI in New York State. I am not aware of any roadside instrument for a field test of marihuana impairment that has been accepted by the courts according to the legal “Frye Standard”  for determining impairment of this substance. Additionally law enforcement has concerns about the legalization effect on personnel, resources, budgets and training. Also, as a part of the new legislation there will be a burden placed on the criminal justice system and law enforcement for the expungement of existing records, and in some cases resentencing.

"Most employers will have to get legal counsel on its effect on the workplace, and job performance as marihuana can stay in ones system for varying lengths of time as a positive drug test may not actually be legal impairment to take disciplinary action if, and or when applicable.

"Finally, when sheriffs’ and chiefs and health officials, treatment providers, and others are working to curb opioid addiction, overdose and death we legalize adult use marihuana – perhaps a contradiction in mission, or not?  Time will tell."

Yates County Sheriff Ron Spike

Penn Yan Police Chief Thomas Dunham

“We have reviewed the new law and are looking forward to further discussions with the Village Board about the legislation and any local ordinances that may come out of those discussions. I think it is important to point out that law enforcement does not create laws. Our staff will work within the law to enforce what is passed.  

“However, I am concerned about the overall safety of our roadways and the ability of people to smoke marihuana in public and what that might mean for children walking home for school or out playing with friends. Our office will be looking to train more officers in Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) as well as expanding Drug Recognition Training. I think it is also important for parents to have discussions with their children about the negative health impacts marihuana can have.” 

Penn Yan Police Chief Thomas Dunham