Saugerties Police chief says new law needed to keep kids off pot

Adults in New York State can now possess up to 3 ounces of marijuana. But Saugerties Police Chief Joseph Sinagra says the state law unintentionally permits possession among minors as well.

Imagine if when prohibition ended in 1933 states didn’t provide a way for police to enforce restrictions on underage drinking. This, according to Saugerties Police Chief Joseph Sinagra, appears to be what happened when New York State legalized marijuana on March 31. Sinagra said the state law makes underage possession a civil offense, like underage possession of alcohol, but offers no mechanism for law enforcement to bring violators before a judge. Sinagra is asking local lawmakers to draft an ordinance that would create such a mechanism, offering a proposed version of what such a law might look like. In the meantime, he’s telling his officers not to engage with anyone under 21 possessing less than three ounces of marijuana because police involvement may not be legal under the current law. (It’s illegal at any age to possess more than three ounces.)

Sinagra said he believes the anomaly is an oversight, and the state legislature will probably correct it once it recognizes the problem. Until then, Sinagra hopes Saugerties town and village governments will adopt a local ordinance to fill the gap in the law.

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Sinagra believes state lawmakers will eventually add clarifying language that would make the local laws unnecessary. Until then, he says the department won’t enforce restrictions on marijuana use among minors.

The state law says a person under 21 in possession of less than three ounces of marijuana is subject to a civil penalty of not more than $50 to be paid to the state Office of Cannabis Management.

“We have this situation where if a person is under 21 years of age, we have no mechanism for number one, stopping and detaining them,” said Sinagra. “The law doesn’t speak to that, and does not give authorization to the police to seize cannabis from an individual less than 21 years of age. It does not provide a mechanism for us to bring that individual before the local criminal court as we can under the ABC [Alcoholic Beverage Control] law that applies to alcohol.”

Sinagra has proposed a local law, which would define marijuana possession as a violation, as with alcohol possession by a person under 21 years old. Unlike a misdemeanor or felony, which would go on the young person’s record, the violation would remain confidential, Sinagra said. “I would not want to design something that would prevent them from obtaining these loans,” he said.

While the state law provides for a fine of $50 for possession of marijuana by a minor, the same amount specified for alcohol, the law Sinagra is proposing is tougher, calling for a $250 fine “and/or community service, not to exceed 30 hours.”

The law also allows the authorities to destroy marijuana seized as a result of such enforcement. It states that “any cannabis seized in violation of this section is hereby declared a nuisance. The official to whom the cannabis has been delivered shall, no earlier than three days following the return date for the initial appearance on the summons, dispose of, or destroy, the cannabis seized, or cause it to be disposed of or destroyed.” The proposed law contains an exception; an adult older than 21 may claim the marijuana in question belongs to him or her and can apply to the court to have it returned.

The final section of the proposed law, titled “reverse preemption,” specifying that it would become null and void if a similar law is passed on the state or federal level.