Marijuana, Crime and Accountability: Increasing criminalization in Chemung County and beyond

Just in the past 24 hours, two major headlines have come from Chemung County. Interestingly enough, the common ground that these stories share is that they are centered around the illegal sale or consumption of Marijuana.


First, Caden F. Charnetski from Elmira was arraigned in Chemung County Court on Friday morning after a grand jury indicted him on one count of first-degree vehicular manslaughter and two counts of second-degree vehicular manslaughter, both felonies, and one count of driving while ability impaired by drugs, a misdemeanor. He could potentially be looking at life behind bars. This stems from a 2018 vehicle crash that resulted in the deaths of Mathew and Harolyn Matteson, a couple from Elmira with two children. Reportedly, Charnetski was driving his car while under the influence of marijuana when he struck the couple, who was on a two-person motorcycle (Read more: Star Gazette). Charnetski, who was immediately charged with operating a motor vehicle while impaired by drugs, underwent blood tests as part of the county's investigation. The tests conclusively determined that he was under the influence of Marijuana at the time of the crash and thus was impaired from making reasonably responsible driving decisions.


Another recent, this time new, story surrounding Marijuana-related crimes comes from Big Flats where a man by the name of Thomas M. Ostrander was arrested by the Chemung County Sheriff's Office after a months-long investigation into the rumored illegal sale of narcotics from his home. With a search warrant in hand, local and state officials [namely he Elmira Drug Enforcement Unit, and New York State Police] seized several pounds of methamphetamine, marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms. Ostrander was immediately charged by a Chemung County Grand Jury with Criminal Sale of Controlled Substances in the 5th Degree, a Class D Felony, and Criminal Sale of Marijuana in the 4th Degree, which is considered a Class A Misdemeanor (Read more: My TwinTiers). This does not exhaust the list of charges that he faces, and he faces a minimum of 6 years in prison with this charges alone. Ostrander is currently being held in the Chemung County Jail without bail pending arraignment in Chemung County Court.


Before diving deeper into the conversation, it is important to note that the purpose of the article is not to undermine the severity of the criminal sale of marijuana, nor is the intent to diminish the fact that the crash that took place resulted in the loss of two lives, two parents nonetheless.


That being said, it is imperative that we engage in the conversation of how recent, albeit failed attempts to push the NY legislature to legalize recreational marijuana state-wide have further fueled the upstate incarceration rate due to marijuana-related arrests being made. In having this conversation, we will also evaluate how the criminalization of marijuana changes the conservation around accountability for one's actions.


Painting a clearer picture of those affected by the criminalization of Marijuana in Chemung and in Upstate New York.


A January 2018 study conducted by an organization called Common Ground Health shows that the 2016 saw a peak in reported health-related incidents due to the effects of addiction, with 5 of the 161 incidents that year resulting in deaths. The report also notes that the Finger Lakes area as a whole has seen a surge in reported drug addictions over the past decade. In fact, the amount of hospital visits and appointments made between 2005 and 2016 increased by over 400%. But on the other hand, many addicts have cited their doctor's prescriptions as being the catalyst for their drug abuse.


The report also notes that,

"Nationally, the CDC projects that drug overdose deaths have increased at least 21 percent from 2015 to 2016, with much of that increase driven by [drugs]. Yet in the Finger Lakes region, overdose deaths involving [drugs] soared 46 percent from 2015 to 2016."

This information, if one were to make an educated guest, had to have impacted the state's decision to not decriminalize the sale or recreational use of marijuana.


In terms of a demographic being impacted, either equally or disproportionately, the same January 2018 study found that while setting (rural, suburban or urban) and age did not play a major role in these trends, and racial /ethnic groups all experienced a general increase in members affected by addiction, "African Americans had significantly lower rates of [...] ED visits than Whites or Hispanics (Common Health Ground)." However, Iohud reports that like Westchester and many other counties in NY, police still arrested mostly black and Hispanic people in for low-level possession of marijuana despite the fact that several district attorneys stopped prosecuting or reduced penalties for low-level marijuana possession to limit unjust harm to poor and minority communities. Though, there is a distinction to be made: both of the accused and the victims of the crash were white in these cases, making it reasonably improbable that there was an underlying racial motivation in the cases mentioned above.


Recognizing that accountability in the eyes of the law is exacerbated by the criminalization of Marijuana, and a call to action.


There is a conversation to be had about who is more likely to commit marijuana-related crimes vs. who is more likely to be caught for them in terms of demographic and identity. However, in this conversation about accountability, it is important for you as readers to note that this article is being written prior to knowing the outcome of the respective trials. Because of this, we can only make assumptions about what the expected level of accountability the defendants will have to take on. These assumptions may exhibit some bias, but will ultimately serve as an initiation of a larger conversation about accountability and responsibility.


It is no secret that in NY state, we take marijuana-related crimes seriously. On the topic of arresting people for the recreational possession, use and/or sale of it alone, there was a state-wide back-and-forth before the legislature decided not to decriminalize it.


I believe that we should shift the conversation around the criminalization of marijuana to be one that asks "What are the psychological effects of marijuana? How do they contribute to potential crimes that may be committed while under the influence? To what extend should officers and lawmakers hold people who commit marijuana-related offenses accountable?"


What are the psychological effects of marijuana?

According to Psychology Today, a main effect of Marijuana is on one's short term memory and on the speed at which one takes input from their senses and processes that information. From a study that the magazine cites, they report that "The recent marijuana users remembered less and processed information more slowly than the people who never smoked, even though the users didn’t smoke that day. Among the marijuana users, those who used more marijuana in the past 28 days performed worse than those who used less. The authors concluded, “cannabis use is associated with cognitive impairments that persist after abstinence.”"


This is a significant finding because these effects indicate that those under the influence do not make for legally reliable alibis in a crime, nor can they fully process or accurately recount events that they were involved in. That makes it difficult, and at times impossible, to testify about anything that happened while they were under the influence.


How do they contribute to potential crimes that may be committed while under the influence?

In addition to the impact on recollection and ability to give a full testimonial, which make marijuana users more susceptible to being targets or fall men for other crimes taking place, Marijuana has been shown to be linked to crimes. These include driving under the influence, kidnapping (where the victims are both drugged with marijuana and used as leverage to obtain more marijuana), and, of course smuggling cannabis over the Canadian border into New York. Because of the aforementioned psychological effects of marijuana, it may be difficult to charge either Charnetski, Ostrander or any other accused persons separately for crimes that are connected to their illegal consumption of marijuana thanks to a legal loophole where one can claim intoxication as a criminal defense. While this defense does not hold in all situations, it does provide defendants who are facing multiple charges related to marijuana usage legal battleground.


Ultimately, the Chemung County Grand Jury has a responsibility to the residents of Chemung to assess whether these individuals, as well as anyone else accused of marijuana possession/sale and other crimes while under the influence of marijuana, signify that those people pose a threat to the safety of the rest of the county, and prosecute them accordingly.


Here is a question for those of you reading this article: Do you believe in the idea of being held accountable for any crimes committed while intoxicated by marijuana in addition to illegal marijuana possession? If so, do you believe that those who commit crimes while under the influence are more susceptible to later commit crimes and endanger others while sober or under the influence? What other factors may contribute to this?

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