Dope decrees

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The liberalization of marijuana laws leads to some hazy questions and answers


  • A sign in Greenwich Village advertizing marijuana delivery sales. Photo: Ludovic Bertron

There seems to be a bit of a dichotomy erupting regarding recreational smoking preferences ... and aversions.

On the one hand, New York is cracking down like a ton of bricks on tobacco smoking and all its related vices and, more recently, its devices. But the relative greening, if you will, of the landscape raises its own set of questions.

NYC Stop Smoking offers assistance to certify and even ensure that entire apartment buildings operate as smoke-free environments, and free tools to quit are available to individuals via 311. The city Parks Department adopted the tact that bars and restaurants did 15 years ago and made it illegal to light up within their boundaries. Even vaping, whose second-hand effects are trickier to authenticate (and may depend on the mechanism) is now banned everywhere cigarettes are with the extension of the Clean Indoor Air Act. The state Department of Health warns that vaping fumes contain formaldehyde, cadmium, benzene and toluene, stuff you don’t want in your nail polish, let alone your lungs. State Sen. Kemp Hannon, a Long Island Republican, says a comprehensive vaping ban is vital in that the output of these relatively new mechanisms is “something bystanders should not be forced to breathe.”

These stipulations bring about an interesting notion, what with the easing of marijuana restrictions and the onset of a near-ubiquitous pot-cloud engulfing the city.

I recently encountered nine different pockets of weed stank while walking just four-and-a-half short blocks in Chelsea. Recently, the entire entryway of Whole Foods on Seventh Avenue, of all places, mysteriously reeked of weed, nobody quite sure where it was coming from.

The foyer of my apartment building is almost more often than not “perfumed” with the ripe odor of a neighbor’s (or their visitors’) toke. Living in a pre-war building, the ventilation is what might be described as communal, thus pretty much ensuring that if my neighbor is benefiting from relaxed marijuana enforcement, so am I — like it or not. In my case, it is always not.

And apparently it is not just an odiferous nuisance. There is valid evidence for concern: research by Matthew Springer at the University of California, San Francisco, showed that even just one minute of exposure to second-hand pot smoke diminishes blood vessel function to the same extent as tobacco, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke, precisely the maladies that rightfully vilified tobacco.

Technically, like so many laws in New York, it is not that the legislation against it doesn’t exist: it just is rarely enforced. Possession of marijuana IS still illegal, despite its rampant and blatant use, punishable to different degrees depending on amount. But enforcement is next to impossible, requiring one to be caught in the act, and even while high, most pot smokers can scuffle away from the authorities, or hide their blunt, to avoid being caught.

At the same time, there are myriad groups fighting against criminality, ranging from grassroots efforts like to New Jersey’s newly elected governor, Phil Murphy. It is difficult to reconcile, in my view, the active denunciation of tobacco while simultaneously exonerating pot, strictly from a quality-of-life standard, or any and all initiatives to improve the health of the city’s population, and the right to breathe clean air.

Whether or not you believe marijuana is a “gateway drug” adds another layer of complexity. Whether or not marijuana smoke is something I should be forced to breathe because everyone else is doing it is not only unpleasant, it is potentially lethal.

The City Council must consider marijuana with the same gravity it ascribes to tobacco, recognizing its commensurate toxicity and detrimental consequences in a quest for clean air. As for medical uses, there are other ways to consume the drug, such as edibles, tinctures and patches. But I doubt most people lighting up in the street, or lighting up in general, have prescriptions for it. Just because you want to burn, doesn’t mean everyone else should be forced to.

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