Editorial: Wishing for common sense with COVID, retail marijuana

The Island Now

Logic seemed to take a holiday last week when the Town of North Hempstead voted to join just about every other municipality by opting out of retail marijuana sales and Nassau County Executive-elect Bruce Blakeman continued to say he would not enforce the state mask and vaccine mandate.

Why, one might ask, would public officials bar the sale of a legal substance while failing to take reasonable steps to combat a deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of more than 800,000 Americans?

Blakeman said two weeks ago he would not enforce Gov. Kathy Hochul’s order that restaurants, stores and all other public indoor places must require customers and staff to wear masks or require proof of vaccination for entry.

Hochul’s decision was applauded by both health officials and business groups in Nassau.

Blakeman disagreed. His reason?

Nassau, he said, was not in crisis and should not be “painted with the same broad brush as the rest of the state.”

“Ninety-seven percent of adults in Nassau County,” he said, “have received at least their first dose of the vaccine and Nassau hospitals have adequate capacity to handle existing demand.”

The hospitals still have adequate capacity, but last week Nassau County’s positivity rate for COVID-19 cases hit nearly 13 percent – the highest seven-day rate of any region in the state.

In a county in which more than 235,000 have tested positive and 3,355 have died since the start of the pandemic, this would seem a good time to take a cautious approach.

But the surge in infections has not changed Blakeman’s stance.

“Instead of spending $65 million to issue fines to struggling residents and small businesses, the governor should instead use that money to make sure testing and vaccinations are available to everyone who wants and needs them,” Blakeman said in a statement.

Two problems with Blakeman’s response.

The first is that enforcing mandates does not hurt business – as can be seen in New York City where proof of vaccinations is required for entry into restaurants and other public places.  It helps. Allowing unmasked, unvaccinated people to shop in a store encourages many shoppers to go online or into places that require proof of vaccination.

The second is that vaccines have been widely available for the past year, a period during which more than 400,000 Americans have died.

Availability is not the problem. People refusing to protect themselves, their family and everyone around by not getting vaccinated is the problem.

And by not enforcing the state mandate Blakeman is removing a strong incentive for the unvaccinated to get their shots.

He is also making people who did the responsible thing and got vaccinated vulnerable to infection when they go out to eat or shop.

Even if breakthrough infections are much less dangerous, why should the vaccinated get sick to accommodate those unwilling to do what every grade school student does to prevent other diseases – get vaccinated.

Even more important, why should this happen at a time when schools face an increasing threat of going remote at least part time in the face of surging infections?

Keeping schools open full time should be our No. 1 priority.

It is true that outgoing County Executive Laura Curran echoed Blakeman in responding to Hochul’s vaccination and mask mandate, and her opposition to requirements for county employees to get vaccinated.

But in his continued opposition to mask and vaccination mandates, Blakeman has adopted the position of Republican county executives around New York state and GOP governors around the country.

And there is no mystery whose lead they have taken. Former President Donald Trump, who remains the leader of the Republican Party, minimized the threat of COVID from its beginning and discouraged the wearing of masks and the use of vaccines.

The result was seen in a poll last month in 91 percent of Democrats reporting having received at least one dose compared with 59 percent of Republicans.

In other words, Blakeman appears to be playing politics with Nassau County residents’ lives.

Now contrast the stances taken by Blakeman and others on decisions by Hempstead, North Hempstead and virtually every village government to bar the retail sale of marijuana and lounges that serve cannabis.

Numerous studies have found that the benefits of legalizing marijuana outweigh the negatives, including health. And that the negative health consequences of marijuana have been found to be much lower than from alcohol and tobacco, which is sold across Nassau County, as well as illicit drugs, including heroin and cocaine.

Nor is there a lack of data to support the conclusions.

Recreational marijuana is now legal in 19 states, Washington, D.C., Guam, Mexico and Canada. Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana in November 2012.

The data “provide little support for the strong claims about legalization made by either opponents or supporters; the notable exception is tax revenue, which has exceeded some expectations,” a recent study by the libertarian Cato Institute concluded. “The absence of significant adverse consequences is especially striking given the sometimes‐dire predictions made by legalization opponents.”

It is true that in many cases the town and village officials who voted to opt out correctly cited the state’s failure to issue regulations governing retail stores and lounges. And that if they did not opt-out, there would be no reversing course when the regulations were issued.

This is a reasonable objection that shouldn’t take long to overcome, given an extensive study by New York and the years of experience in other states and countries.

There is no debate that alcohol is far more dangerous than marijuana, so just to be on the safe side, restrict retail marijuana shops the same way that alcohol is restricted, including where it is sold. Do the same for lounges where marijuana is sold and restaurants and bars.

Don’t like the smell? Apply the same rules to marijuana that you do for cigars and cigarettes.

Concerned about potency or additives?

An in-depth report issued by the state in 2018 concluded that regulation benefits public health by enabling government oversight of the production, testing, labeling, distribution and sale of marijuana.

And for those concerned about the Nassau economy, small businesses and high taxes, retail marijuana stores, lounges and warehouses offer jobs, tax revenue and a way to fill empty storefronts.

This all seems fairly straightforward.

But the opposition of residents and officials to highly regulated medical marijuana facilities in the recent past says otherwise.

In those discussions, local governments restricted the distribution of a much-needed treatment for seriously ill people to out-of-the-way industrial areas and severely limited the number of locations.

For many residents and officials, the reason was concerns that medical marijuana stores would be later allowed to sell recreational marijuana.

We would hope that common sense prevails for both recreational marijuana and COVID. But given recent history, we wouldn’t bet on it.




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