UB student heads marijuana legalization advocacy group

WNY NORML pushes for legalization of recreational marijuana

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Jack Porcari pays over $200 monthly to treat his epilepsy, a chronic disorder of recurrent seizures.

But the sophomore political science major said he would rather pay for an alternative treatment that works “just as well” and costs less.

 Porcari serves as executive director for the Western New York region of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which advocates for legalization of marijuana at local, state and federal levels. Porcari said WNY NORML started as the Buffalo Cannabis Movement, but members decided to become part of NORML as they felt it had the resources to continue their advocacy. The organization is gathering support to pass the Marijuana Regulation Taxation Act, which has garnered roughly 1,500 signatures according to Porcari. If the NYS senate passes it, it will legalize distribution and recreational use of marijuana for adults 21 and over, create a system regulating marijuana sales and taxes and clear records of those with past marijuana charges, according to Brad Usher, chief of staff for New York State Senator Liz Kreuger.

Porcari said the movement is necessary for those who have been negatively impacted by cannabis due to “unjust” incarceration and being denied jobs, as well as for those positively affected by marijuana. WNY NORML holds monthly meetings at Sativa Remedy, an herbal medicine store in Tonawanda, where the group discusses “legislative strategies” and community member concerns. The organization meets with senators like Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Assembly member Karen McMahon roughly 10 times a month to discuss these concerns. 

Porcari said he knows people who say marijuana changed their lives.”

“We have talked to so many people who have nearly lost their lives because of opioids and they turned to cannabis and it’s been the best alternative treatment they’ve ever had,” Porcari said. 

Penelope Hamilton, a year-long member of WNY NORML and cannabis coach and educator, said she was prescribed opiates for 16 years for rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disorder, and Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the body. 

Hamilton said doctors told her she’d be on opiates for the rest of her life to treat her medical conditions. She was in “utter despair” and wanted an alternative treatment.

Hamilton said she was “bedridden” and had “pretty much given up on life” when someone recommended using marijuana. 

“I tried it through ingesting it, not smoking it, and it was so easy to just replace the doses, it worked well and then all of a sudden, I started actually healing,” Hamilton said. “Today, I’m a totally different person.”

Hamilton said she hasn’t touched opiates since January 2017, no longer needs a walker or wheelchair and lost 150 pounds. 

Porcari said legalizing marijuana in Buffalo could help end its “racial disparity.” 

The legal industry of marijuana is 99% white, according to USA Today, while minorities make up 86% of New York’s marijuana arrests in 2017.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act will create an equity program to help communities that were “disproportionately affected by the drug war,” according to Usher. 

“If you look at arrest rates, communities of color, black and Latino arrests are exponentially higher, despite the fact that marijuana is used at similar levels across racial groups,” Usher said. 

NYS rejected the Marijuana Regulation Taxation Act last year, however, Usher stated the general trend in public opinion polls is for marijuana legalization and feels that New York’s hesitance makes “less and less sense.” 

“Making it illegal in New York state doesn’t mean people can’t access the market anyway,” Usher said. “I think there’s a great growing recognition that it would be helpful as a region to move forward, sooner rather than later, with a sort of shared approach to legalization.” 

 McMahon wrote in an email that she has “always” been an advocate for decriminalizing marijuana-related violations and was pleased to take that step when she met with WNY NORML. 

She believes more can be done to make medical marijuana more “affordable and accessible.” 

“As for recreational marijuana, I am not opposed to legalization, but I would seek to address the concerns of the law enforcement and medical communities prior to its implementation,” McMahon wrote in an email. “I anticipate my colleagues in both the State Assembly and Senate will address these issues during the next session.”

On March 25, WNY NORML petitioned outside the U.S. Senate Chamber to include the Marijuana Regulation Taxation Act in the state budget. The group also made itself known at local festivals and produced the first cannabis publication in Buffalo, CannaBuff

 “Throughout New York state, 63% of voters approve of legalization,” Porcari said. “So at this point, it’s really [up to] the Senate and the Assembly meeting with the governor and trying to find a deal [that] would work for all three branches.”

Alexandra Moyen is a news editor and can be reached at alexandra.moyen@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @AlexandraMoyen.

ALEXANDRA MOYEN


Alexandra Moyen is a news editor for The Spectrum.