August 8, 2022

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Somers officials mull marijuana regulations

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SOMERS, N.Y. – Now that Albany has finally legalized recreational marijuana, communities such as Somers are scurrying to figure out what that ultimately means to them.

Cities, towns, and villages will be able to “opt-out” of allowing retail pot dispensaries, or licenses for “consumption sites.”

To do so, they will have to pass a local law by Dec. 31, 2021 – or nine months after the legislation takes effect.They cannot opt-out of the legislation all together, however.

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Last April, Somers – seeing the smoke signals from Albany – decided to hang loose on a proposal to regulate where recreational marijuana could be sold in town.

The year before, it had considered passing a local law that would have banned retail pot establishments outright. But the state was already considering preventing any governmental entity other than counties and cities of a certain size from opting-out.

At any rate, Cuomo and lawmakers weren’t able to agree on whether a portion of the marijuana sales taxes should be allocated to the largely minority communities that had been disproportionately impacted by pot-related arrests.

The legislation never made it into the 2020-2021 state budget.

Somers got so far as holding a public hearing in 2019 on its proposed ban and intended to revisit the issue last year on a change to its zoning codes that would have kept retail pot shops out of its “Neighborhood Shopping Districts.”

In 2018, the town amended its zoning code in order to control where vaping shops could be located. The move to regulate retail pot sales was an extension of that, town officials say. It ultimately decided to hold fire until the Albany acted.

However, a framework for the local marijuana law has been prepared and is now ready to be taken off the shelf, Councilman Anthony J. Cirieco said Wednesday, March 31.

The Town Board tackled the topic at its work session on Thursday, April 1.

Somers officials had discussed a response last year after getting wind that the state was getting ready to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

“We thought that, we’re in the midst of a drug crisis not only in Somers, but in the county and the state. We’re experiencing in town – this is not next to our town or New York City – young people overdosing almost on a monthly basis,” Morrissey said. “It’s a scary proposition.”

There are a lot of arguments about whether marijuana is a “gateway drug,” he said.

Town Attorney Roland A. Baroni explained Thursday that the state is now allowing towns to opt-out by adopting a local law subject to a “permissive referendum.”

Baroni, who advises other northern Westchester towns, added that he thought that some of the Somers’s “neighbors are leaning the same way.”

So if Somers were so inclined, he anticipated getting together with other municipal attorneys to draft “a pretty standard, standalone law” so there’s “some uniformity” among northern Westchester communities that are opting out.

Baroni suggested that the town hold a public hearing on the proposed law no later than September.

Even though the state law is in effect now, but since one of its provisions is for a “control board to be set up and a whole process that has to be gone through,” the earliest retail sales could start would be April, 2022, Baroni said.

Councilman Richard Clinchy noted that — now that every municipality can opt-out – the area could wind up with “a checkerboard full of regulations and opt-outs and opt-ins.”

Baroni agreed, saying that “Yes, and the opt-ins are going to get people from the opt-outs. So the ones that stay in the program are going to see a lot of new faces in their retail areas.”

Clinchy said that while some communities may “welcome” the increase in business, he thought Somers should “wait to see how this thing works out.”

Councilman Anthony Cirieco said Thursday that the state law “goes beyond the decriminalization of the substance.”

“They’re creating a marketing plan, essentially legalizing the retail, the distribution, the agricultural part of this and trying to collect revenues on this,” he said.

Cirieco said he’s talked to school officials and other municipalities who are concerned because “they’re dealing with the issues of substance abuse at the local level. I mean, this is where the rubber meets the road.”

“It’s almost like an unfunded mandate because, on some level they’re trying to create a business, and we’re going to have to deal with it.”

Communities are already wrestling with substance abuse involving alcohol and opioids, so throwing weed into the mix further “complicates” things, Cirieco said.

Calling it an “ill-conceived” law, Morrissey added that if the intent was just to generate revenue, there’s “a myriad of other ways.”

Cirieco said he found the revenue argument “insulting.”

“I mean, $300 million, on a $200 billion budget; that’s not even one half of one percent,” he said. “$300 million and they’re going to give some of that back to remediate some of the substance abuse issues that might happen around that? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Councilman William Faulkner, agreeing that the state move was “ill-conceived,” said it may generate a certain amount, but it’s going to cost much more for things like law enforcement, emergency medical expenses, hospital visits, and so forth.

Referring to a “Cannabis Czar,” Cirieco said setting up an administrative structure to manage the new regulations, “is not going to make the illegal part go away. There are still going to be black markets for all of this stuff.”

Clinchy allowed that there were people who will differ with the town on the opt-out, folks “that think it’s (marijuana) less harmful than alcohol and that people have been prosecuted wrongly on what is not a major issue.”

Clinchy, a retired teacher and basketball coach, worried about the message it sends to young people, who have been told that pot is harmful.

What are they being told now? “Ah, forget that, it’s legal,” he added.

“But it is a social experiment, and I’ll wait to see what the results are, but right now I’m certainly against it,” Clinchy said.

North Salem Supervisor Warren J. Lucas noted that town has one option if it wants to opt-out, and “that is to pass a local law.”

Towns would only have to put it up for a public vote “if sufficient people sign a document requesting it to (permissive) referendum,” he said Thursday, April 1.

“I believe the Town Board is not in favor of having marijuana sold in town,” Lucas said. “In talking to all of the other supervisors in Westchester County I know they feel the same.”

Lucas added that he had talked to other local officials who already have medical marijuana locations in their municipalities.

“The hassles they go through, we really don’t want or need it sold here,” he said.

Lucas plans to urge the Town Board to “move forward” with the opt-out law.

“I’m sure a future Town Board can change their mind,” he added.

WHAT IT MEANS

Albany’s decision to legalize recreational marijuana use for people 21 and older will not only boost the state economy, it will be another step towards racial and social equity, supporters say.

Tax revenues from the adult-use cannabis program are expected to reach $350 million a year.

The money would go to the state’s cannabis revenue fund and the rest divvied up between education (40 percent); the Drug Treatment and Public Education Fund (20 percent) and community development (40 percent) in minority areas ravaged during the so-called “War on Drugs.”

(The global campaign, launched in the early 1970s, was led by the federal government. It consisted of drug prohibition, and military aid and intervention. Its aim was to reduce the illegal drug trade in this country.)

New York’s cannabis industry could create 30,000 to 60,000 new jobs across the state.

Signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday, March 31, the legislation’s passage also means that folks convicted of pot-related offenses – ones that are no longer criminalized – will have their records automatically erased.

“This is a historic day in New York — one that rights the wrongs of the past by putting an end to harsh prison sentences, embraces an industry that will grow the Empire State’s economy, and prioritizes marginalized communities so those that have suffered the most will be the first to reap the benefits.” Cuomo said.

New Yorkers are now allowed to possess up to three ounces of marijuana, or 24 grams of concentrated forms of the drugs, such as oils, for recreational use.

They can also smoke pot in public wherever tobacco use is allowed.

Municipalities, and a new state agency, could establish stricter controls on public usage, however.

Folks will eventually be allowed to have weed delivered to their homes or use the product at “consumption sites.” They can also grow up to six plants – for personal use.

New York is the 16th state, along with the District of Columbia, to legalize recreational marijuana.

Medical marijuana was legalized in New York in 2014.

It will take about a year for the regulatory framework to be in place for public dispensaries to open.

State Sen. Peter Harckham (D-South Salem) Tuesday welcomed his house’s approval of the “Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act,” calling it the “most thoughtful bill of its kind in the nation.”

“This legislation is the result of substantial conversations with concerned stakeholders from around the state,” said Harckham. “Because we took the time to gather necessary information and bring together everyone’s concerns, the result is a comprehensive agreement that stands as the most thoughtful bill of its kind in the nation.”

Regulating the sale of marijuana, means, he added that “we will be able to bring this economic activity out of the shadows for the good of all our residents.”

Harckham noted the state legislators benefited from seeing how other states fared with marijuana legalization, learning from their successes and missteps.

As chairman of the Senate Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, he expressed concern about the legislation when it was first introduced.

He set about on a fact-finding mission that included a visit in January 2020 to a Massachusetts cannabis dispensary and a nearby school district, where Harckham discovered “the sky was not falling.”

He finally was convinced to support it after funding for treatment and drug prevention from marijuana revenue was added to the bill.

Use of cannabis by drivers remains prohibited.

The state Department of Health will help come up with ways to detect impaired driving.

As more and more states legalized medical and recreational marijuana, police had to come up with strategies for determining whether when drivers who were using them were impaired.

Police do not yet have a device that can be used to determine if a driver is under the influence of marijuana. They instead have to rely on field sobriety tests intended to fight drunk driving, or on simple observation, which can leave room for error.

According to Harckham, the law earmarks “significant” funding for drug recognition and law enforcement on public highways.

In terms of social justice, he said, the bill “restructures penalties for sale and possession” and guarantees that marijuana “is treated as a lawful substance, and discriminatory enforcement of laws will be prohibited.”

State Assemblyman Kevin Byrne (R-C, Mahopac), the ranking Minority member on the Health Committee, has opposed legalizing recreational marijuana.

He voted against the legislation but said Thursday, April 1, that he supports lifting “burdensome restrictions on medicinal marijuana,” but still thinks it “should remain a controlled substance.”

“We know there can be medicinal benefits from cannabis, but its use should be a decision made between a patient and their doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant,” said Byrne, who represents District 94, which includes Somers, Yorktown, and Mahopac.

Byrne said he had been resigned to the fact that legalization “was likely to pass,” but was also determined to help ensure that certain public health and safety measures were “put in place” first.

“Unfortunately, it is my determination that many of the guard rails our state needed to safeguard public health and safety were absent in the MRTA (Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act),” he said.

Byrne said he felt that the issues of social injustice “were largely addressed years ago when the state repealed many of the ‘Rockefeller Drug Laws’ and more recently with last year’s decriminalization bill.

Still, he argued, the decriminalization bill – though “well-intentioned” – went “too far” by eliminating violations “that were previously enforceable against a person who smoked cannabis in public spaces.”

Now that pot has been fully legalized, people can use it anywhere they can smoke tobacco, including “some public parks frequented by our youth.”

“Tobacco and cannabis are inherently different and should be regulated as such,” Byrne said, adding that he had written to the MRTA’s sponsor, advocating for reforms that “would better enable local governments to regulate and restrict cannabis use in public spaces.”

Byrne acknowledged that legalization will bring in some new tax revenue, but, he said, “it will also increase costs that affect our state and local budgets as well as put the health and well-being of our families at greater risk.”

“Whatever fiscal benefit may exist from the MRTA is simply not worth the price tag,” Byrne asserted.

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