October 22, 2021

Cortland police pondering pot proposal

Photo provided by Cortland City Police

Pictured above are bags of marijuana seized by police from a home at 138 Clinton Ave. in Cortland in July 2010.

Cortland police say little would change for them if Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s call to decriminalize marijuana is adopted, but they have concerns about what it would say to residents about substance use and abuse.

When the governor unveiled his $152.3 billion budget proposal earlier this month, he also rolled out his legislative agenda outlining other proposals and policies, including a proposal to decriminalize marijuana possession.

Decriminalization is different than legalization. Whereas legalization would mean that marijuana could be used recreationally, decriminalization means possession and use of marijuana is still a crime, albeit much less serious than a felony or even a misdemeanor.

Under existing state law, 25 grams of marijuana is the difference between a violation — which is typically resolved by paying a fine — and a misdemeanor, a more serious charge.

Cuomo’s proposal suggests he would like to increase the amount of marijuana that would constitute a misdemeanor, but did not elaborate on the changes he would like to see.

Cortland Police Chief F. Michael Catalano said Tuesday he was unaware of the governor’s proposal, but he did not think decriminalization of marijuana would be a big adjustment for his department.

Cuomo’s plan cites a state Office of the Comptroller statistic that nearly 90 percent of those arrested for a marijuana-related crime were brought in on violations, not sales.

Catalano said he has found that to mostly to be the case in Cortland, meaning further decriminalization would not have that much of an effect on police work.

“A lot of times it’s a secondary thing, where they may have been arrested for something else and they happened to have marijuana on them,” he said. “It’s going to depend on their (the suspect’s) legal circumstance.”

Catalano also noted that, under state law, while the police can hold someone for other violations, marijuana possession is not one of those instances.

The more serious marijuana charges officers deal with are related to sales, not possession, he said. Simply giving someone a cigarette’s worth of marijuana — even without exchanging money — is a misdemeanor.

“A sale ends up raising the level of a crime,” he said. “Then it depends on who you’re selling it to … how much.”

Cortland County Sheriff’s Capt. Rob Derksen said that with Massachusetts’ recent legalization of recreational marijuana, he would be concerned should New York further decriminalize pot.

“We’ve already heard rumors of people making the trip,” he said. “Three and a half hours and you can be in Massachusetts. We’re never afraid to work, it’s just … potentially there’s a lot more issues now.”

Derksen said he is concerned about a spike in other crimes linked to marijuana use.

“Now you may have more drivers under the influence of marijuana,” he said. “There’s just a whole host of things. If people have it in their homes, are their children going to get into it? It’s Pandora’s box. From my perspective it doesn’t look good.”

Catalano said he feels nothing good can come of further legitimizing the drug.

“Would it (decriminalization) make our job harder? I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s a gateway drug in my opinion. Anything to lessen the penalties, I’m not in favor of.”