Vaping illnesses give Canada pause as legal sales near

In this Dec. 22 photo, a woman takes a puff from a cannabis vape pen in Los Angeles. The serious lung illness affecting hundreds of people in the U.S. who vaped cannabis-based oil is giving Canadian health officials pause as that country prepares to allow the sale of vaping products in its legal marijuana market. (The Associated Press)

ALBANY — With Gov. Andrew Cuomo aiming to win approval for legalized recreational marijuana in seven weeks, opponents of the proposal urged lawmakers Monday to deal with the issue outside the state budget.

Cuomo has repeatedly said he believes the cannabis proposal will falter if it is handled independently of his $178 billion state spending blueprint.

The push for an on-time budget — the state's next fiscal year begins April 1 — is growing amid complications relating to calls from upstate and suburban lawmakers to scale back the controversial bail laws that took effect January 1.

There are new indications some lawmakers are so adamant in favoring the restoration of judicial discretion in bail decisions that they may withhold their support for the marijuana proposal.

Should a standoff continue over the bail issue, it could doom the marijuana legalization effort for another year. A drive to add New York to the column of states with legal weed ran off the tracks late in the 2019 legislative session after it was removed from budget negotiations.

One of the leaders of a coalition of anti-marijuana groups, Kyle Belokopitksky, director of the New York State Parent Teachers Association, noted in her 22 years of following budget talks that proposals unrelated to state spending arise regularly.

"Controversial issues get included in the budget each year because they can't pass on their own when they are on the outside" of the spending authorization measures, Belokopitsky said.

Also registering opposition was the New York State Association of County Health Officials. "The experiences in other states and the scientific research have proven it will generate preventable deaths and illnesses," said Sarah Ravenhall, the association's director.

One of the prime supporters of legalized pot, Assembly Member Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said passage now "appears very likely," but acknowledged some issues remain under negotiation.

She is seeking a dedicated stream of revenue to support communities adversely affected by enforcement of laws banning the possession and sale of marijuana. Criminal justice studies have found that a disproportionately high tally of arrests have affected African American New Yorkers.

While the Cuomo proposal does not include such a dedicated fund, Peoples-Stokes said, "The governor does understand the dynamics of this."

She said it is crucial that marijuana legislation recognizes what she called years of uneven enforcement. "We're talking about multiple decades of a problem that was created," she said. "It's not going to be solved in a couple of budgets. It has to be in the statute" in order to keep the funding going after Cuomo leaves office.

But Belokopitsky and leaders of police groups and medical professionals said cannabis legalization would steer more adolescents to drug use while creating highway hazards. A recent report sponsored by the American Automobile Association found a sharp increase in Washington state in the number of fatal injuries resulting from crashes where drivers were impaired by THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

"We should be listening to the medical professionals," said Delaware County Sheriff Craig DuMond.

He and other police professionals predicted legalization will increase the black market for marijuana, with street dealers boosting the availability of cheap weed to undercut the taxes that would be imposed on state-licensed shops.

If lawmakers go along with Cuomo on cannabis, New York would become the nation's 12th state offering legal sales of recreational marijuana. Weed is also legal in Washington, D.C, and Canada.

Cuomo's proposal does not authorize the growing of marijuana plants for personal consumption, though the bill advanced by Peoples-Stokes and Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, would allow New Yorkers to cultivate their own pot patches.


Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at .

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