Marijuana legalization minimizes opioid impact, does not increase youth use, state report says

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An Oct. 14 protest at Mary Jane Davies Green in Manhasset brought out parents, children and local politicians against a medical marijuana dispensary relocation to Northern Boulevard. (Photo by John Nugent)

Over the course of just a few weeks, a conversation about a local medical marijuana dispensary quickly warped into one about what legalized recreational marijuana could and should look like in North Hempstead.

When cannabis-seller MedMen applied to move its local store from a secluded space inside a medical office building to Manhasset’s Northern Boulevard, community members grew outraged, concerned about what it would do to the community should it eventually sell marijuana for nonmedical purposes.

There was a protest, Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth wrote to the state’s Health Department out of concern and, most recently, the town held a heated meeting about creating zoning regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries.

Locally, the most vocal advocate in favor of both the dispensary and state legalization of recreational use has been MedMen itself.

Debates like these are not uncommon across the country, as legalization gradually sweeps across political agendas state by state.

In fact, New York agencies created an assessment that simulated such a debate by weighing the pros and cons of legalization for the state, with more than 100 references cited and 17 listening sessions across the state that followed to gauge public response.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for the assessment in January, and the result, published in July, concluded that the benefits of legalization outweighed drawbacks.

It covers marijuana and related policies’ effects on health, justice, education, economics and everything in between, and cites data gathered in other states that have legalized adult use of marijuana and evaluated how it has played out.

If there is going to be a conversation about changing policy, facts matter, and the assessment provides those to educate New Yorkers, said Johanne Morne, director of the AIDS Institute at the New York State Department of Health, who helped  develop the assessment.

“I think what the assessment does is at least give the people the information of what absolutely needs to be considered a priority,” she said.

Use among youth

The impacts of prohibition-style policy toward marijuana are particularly evident in New York, which has made more than 400,000 low-level marijuana arrests in the last 10 years, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

But concerns related to the effects of criminalization are nearly absent from Manhasset’s dialogue. The local debate tends to be about how a visible dispensary may influence youth and what health impacts could be, particularly for a community that has already had run-throughs with addressing alcohol, opioid and cigarette consumption.

Zoning regulations that the Town Board has discussed would limit how close a dispensary could be to certain places, such as schools or parks. Members of the Council of Greater Manhasset Civic Associations have cited how MedMen sells merchandise with cannabis leaves at its Fifth Avenue location, concerned with how such advertising might appeal to youth.

But recreational legalization has little effect on the number of youths who use the drug, according to the state’s assessment.

If anything, it makes it harder to access.

“Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit substance by adolescents,” the assessment says, citing a 2018 study by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.

For decades teens have said that marijuana is easy to access, it says, which MedMen political affairs manager Landon Dais said his cousins in Long Island have told him.

“They were saying to me, ‘Cousin Landon, it was easier for me to get marijuana in high school than it was alcohol because I didn’t have an ID,’” Dais said.

Additionally, neighborhoods with dispensaries do not have higher rates of use among youths, said Melissa Moore, New York deputy director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

If marijuana is legalized there could then be a distinction between legal adult use and illegal underage use, the assessment says.

“Data provides a strong reason to believe that increasing the minimum legal age to 21 will contribute to reductions in youth tobacco use,” it says. “Drawing parallels from tobacco research, regulating marijuana would enable the State to establish controls over marijuana use, including setting legal age limits, which will reduce youth access to marijuana.”

Legalization would also provide a greater opportunity to educate youth about the drug, Morne said.

“The intention here in looking at a regulated market is certainly not to entice young people but it is to take the opportunity to provide education and awareness and to understand the impacts that routine marijuana use can have,” she said.

Baby boomers and older adults are the demographic groups that have experienced the greatest increase in marijuana use in states that have legalized it, Moore said. Behavioral psychology shows that when their elders acceptance something that they normally embrace, youth may start using it less, she said.

“I think as with Facebook, as with so many other things, young people see that and they’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do that’ … so it’s an interesting kind of shift that we’re seeing,” Moore said.

Marijuana and physical health

Manhasset residents and politicians have also expressed concerns about the health effects of marijuana (though they tend to be in agreement that it is beneficial for patients as a medical product).

Negative health consequences associated with marijuana use are more negligible than those associated with other substances, including alcohol and tobacco, according to New York’s assessment.

The most notable negative effects are on memory and attention. Marijuana can also harm the lungs if it is smoked.

Most people who use marijuana do not proceed to other drugs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Opioids, which have caused an epidemic of addiction and death, are used less in states where medical marijuana is legal, Moore said.

“Long Island has been hit really hard by the opioid crisis,” she said. “Some of the reasons that people are using opioids in the first place is really around managing chronic pain, and a lot of research is saying marijuana can be a really effective replacement.”

States with legal marijuana markets have 25 percent fewer overdoses, Moore said.

Those states have 6.38 percent less opioid prescribing, according to the state assessment.

Legalization also creates quality standardization. Black market marijuana may have contaminants while regulated markets often require testing and labeling.

“For individuals who are purchasing illicitly there is not a knowledge base or confidence in what is being presented to them,” Morne said.

Deciding whether to ride the wave

After the New York Department of Health released the assessment of the potential impacts of legalization, Cuomo’s office held listening sessions across the state and created a working group to draft legislation.

“The goal of this administration is to create a model program for regulated adult-use marijuana – and we determined the best way to do that was to ensure our final proposal captures the views of everyday New Yorkers,” said Tyrone Stevens, a spokesman for Cuomo.

Now that the listening sessions have concluded, the working group has begun accessing and reviewing the feedback we received and we expect to introduce a formal comprehensive proposal during the 2019 legislative session.”

Moore said she anticipates the proposal will be included in the state budget.

North Hempstead’s council has drafted a local law that would amend the town code to restrict medical marijuana facilities from selling the product to nonpatients if the state legalizes recreational marijuana. It plans to vote on the law, along with another that creates zoning regulations for medical facilities, on Nov. 20.

This practice has been popping up in other states, such as New Jersey, as they have considered legalization.

Doretta Goldberg, a Flower Hill resident who has been following the local marijuana conversation as it has surfaced in the press, has a different stance than the civic leaders, mayors and protesters.

“Then don’t have bars either,” she said. “Don’t have liquor stores. I think there’s a little bit of a cultural thing at play.”

Morne said jurisdictions opting out of a legal market probably have “more an illusion of control than actual control of the situation,” especially since surrounding areas would still have marijuana legally accessible.

Plus, opting out also means opting out of the tax benefits, she said.

Ten states and Washington, D.C., now have regulated markets. Many see it as inevitable that the entire country will soon have the drug legalized.

Goldberg bought her children iPhones when they were just starting to come on the market.

“About a year later I said to myself, ‘I’m like the stupidest person in the world. Instead of buying them iPhones I should have bought Apple stock,’” she said.

So the next time she saw an industry that she predicted was about to boom, she invested in it.

A small investment in MedMen isn’t the reason she is fine with its proposed dispensary move into Manhasset, she said. Her stocks in cannabis companies have led her to research the industry as a whole and recognize that broader legalization allows more people to use marijuana for medical uses and that the drug is safer than opioids.

The public conversation dominating this area feels outdated, she said.

“It could have been in 1965,” she said.

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