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Wayne Co. sheriff opposes marijuana legalization at state hearing

Local News
Barry Virts

The Wayne County Sheriff spoke out Tuesday against the legalization of marijuana in New York, as state lawmakers weighed changing state law prohibiting the drug.

Sheriff Barry Virts offered testimony Tuesday as the state Assembly held a hearing in Binghamton. Earlier this year, a state health department task force released a study that found the positives of recreational marijuana legalization outweighed the negative impacts.

In response to the study, Governor Cuomo formed a group to begin drafting legislation for a regulated legal marijuana program in New York, something that could be passed as soon as next year.

But, ahead of any vote, state lawmakers are holding hearings across the state to get input from residents and local leaders.

Tuesday, in Binghamton, Sheriff Virts, representing the New York State Sheriffs’ Association, said he believes that legalizing marijuana while the country in the midst of an epidemic of drug abuse is “counter-intuitive.”

Sheriff Virts said, “As you are no doubt aware, our nation, our state, and our counties are in the midst of an opioid epidemic.  The vast majority of the arrests that my Office makes are drug related, whether directly, such as for possession or dealing, or indirectly, such as crimes committed in order to fuel an addiction— burglary, robbery, assault and fraud—or crimes committed due to an altered state of mind caused by drugs.  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.”

However, in its report, the state health department said that studies have found that there is less abuse and fewer overdoses in areas where marijuana is available. But, some doctors have questioned whether the facts back up that claim.

Sheriff Virts also says he fears the legalization marijuana could become a slippery slope to harder drug use. “It is my strong belief that legalization will result in an increase in the use of marijuana, and at the same time would trivialize its negative effects, which could lead to further, more serious drug use especially for our youth.”

Virts says he’s also concerned about the impact marijuana legalization could have on impaired driving. The sheriff says his office saw an 12 percent increase in driving while ability impaired by drugs arrests (DWAI) in 2017 alone.

Sheriff Virts says, “I’ve no doubt that this number will increase should any type of legalization occur.  Unlike a DWI involving alcohol, DWAI-Drugs is more difficult to prosecute given the fact that there is no drug testing procedure or device equivalent to a breath chemical alcohol test.”

Finally, the sheriff says legalizing marijuana in New York, while cannabis is still prohibited at the federal level, would create a law enforcement conflict.

Sheriff Virts says, “Federal prosecutors once again have the discretion to prosecute marijuana related crimes. This conflict between state and federal laws would create confusion for our citizens as to what is legal and what is not.”

You can click here to read the transcript of Sheriff Virts’ remarks on the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office website.

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