Local government leaders weigh in on bringing marijuana dispensaries to town | Government

WATERTOWN — Marijuana legalization has come to New York, but local governments will have a choice to make: should they allow dispensaries within their borders or keep them at bay?

In the north country, many local leaders said they’re still weighing the options.

According to the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, signed into law by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday, cities, towns and villages will have the option to opt-out of allowing retail dispensaries, although they will have to forego the tax revenue potentially generated by the shops.

Under the MRTA, marijuana sales will be taxed at a 13% rate, with 9% going to New York state, 3% going to the local government and 1% going to the county.

To ban a dispensary, the local government’s legislature must pass a local law enacting the ban before Dec. 31.

Residents of a municipality can also force a referendum on the issue by circulating a petition. If the petition gets enough signatures from registered voters for that municipality, the local government must hold a referendum on a local law. If a majority of voters say yes to a ban in that referendum, it must be enacted.

Even if the municipal government decides not to enact an outright ban, they can still enact some restrictions on dispensaries within their borders, such as the way they can for liquor stores. Local governments could tell a dispensary to close at a certain time or regulate its signage and storefront appearance, for example.

Across the north country, many local leaders said they’re still learning about the ins-and-outs of the MRTA, but Ogdensburg Mayor Jeffrey M. Skelly said he’s inclined to allow retail sales in the city.

He said if he had his way, he wouldn’t have seen marijuana legalization come to New York at all, but if it’s going to happen, the city may as well participate.

“People are going to use it, they already have it,” he said. “They’re just going to buy it on the outside of the city and bring it in, or grow it, so I say we may as well manage it within our city and gain revenue.”

Mayor Skelly noted that he’s not the only decision-maker on the issue, as the full Ogdensburg City Council would have to discuss the issue and vote on the local law.

“I’m only one of seven,” he said.

Many opponents to the MRTA have said they fear the effects marijuana legalization could have on drug abuse. Many people continue to consider marijuana a “gateway drug” that can inspire users to move on to other substances. While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that a vast majority of marijuana users don’t move on to other substances, there’s no clear evidence yet on if marijuana use could put people at a higher risk of using other, more harmful substances.

Mayor Skelly said he’s seen the effects of drug addiction and alcoholism on his own family and wouldn’t want to see more people’s lives be impacted by drug and alcohol abuse.

“I don’t think anybody really has the answers to this, but we’re at the mercy of the state here,” he said. “They enacted it, and just like everything else, we have to follow. They’re bigger, more powerful, and we just have to deal with that.”

In Watertown, the region’s other city, Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith said he definitely considers marijuana to be a gateway drug and has heard that local drug abuse treatment organizations are concerned about the consequences of legalized marijuana.

“The Alliance for Better Communities has brought that out, and there’s a concern there,” he said.

The Alliance for Better Communities is a Jefferson County-based community coalition with a common goal in mind: to create a safer, healthier and drug-free community for area youth, according to its website.

Mayor Smith said he doesn’t yet know what the other City Council members think about legalizing marijuana, but he believes retail sales shouldn’t come to Watertown.

“I personally don’t think it’s in the best interests of the city right now, from what I know,” he said.

The mayor, who works as a physician assistant, said he wouldn’t want to see someone else in the medical profession using marijuana, regardless of its legality.

Many proponents of legalization have pointed to the potential revenue generated for government by taxing marijuana. Gov. Cuomo’s office has projected that the state will bring in $350 million in tax revenue from the enterprise. Mayor Smith said he doesn’t think legalizing for tax revenue purposes is the right move.

“I would like to generate more revenue from taxes because we have businesses and industries moving into New York state or the north country or the city,” he said.

Mayor Smith also said he has concerns that children and teenagers will find marijuana easier to get a hold of now that it’s legal. He said there are already issues with marijuana use among teenagers, and legalization will only exacerbate the problem.

“I’m concerned about my kids,” he said. “Things are different today than they were in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and as a parent I worry about things.”

In the village of Gouverneur, Mayor Ronald P. McDougall said the village is preparing for a number of changes as a result of the MRTA.

“It’s definitely a paradigm shift,” he said.

Mayor McDougall said he already had a conversation with the village police chief about what effects the legislation has had on policing.

Once the governor signed the bill into law Wednesday, police in the state were immediately unable to use the presence of marijuana, or the smell of it, as proof that a person is committing a crime. Police no longer can use the smell of marijuana as reasonable cause to search a vehicle during a traffic stop, although they can use it as an indicator that the driver is driving while under the influence.

Mayor McDougall said it remains to be seen what the village of Gouverneur will decide when it comes to allowing retail spaces within its borders. He said that in the event the issue comes to a referendum, he has no idea which way the village residents would vote.

Either way, he said, with so many nearby states and Canada legalizing marijuana for recreational use, it’s bound to come into the region, legally or otherwise.

“We have people crossing the borders and eventually it gets to us,” he said.

In the Lewis County village of Croghan, Mayor Julie L. Robinson said she doesn’t have a sense of what the village will decide when it comes to hosting a retail marijuana shop in town. She said while she would love to see more business come to town, there are a number of reasons why a marijuana shop could be problematic.

For one, she said, the village government doesn’t currently collect a sales tax, so the method by which they would collect a sales tax from a marijuana shop isn’t entirely clear. Another issue is what the local residents would think about it.

“There’s so much hate going on already with COVID and politics in general, I would hate to bring more to this little bubble,” she said.

Mayor Robinson said she was planning to get more input from Croghan residents, and on Thursday sent a message soliciting input to the village’s Facebook page. No residents had offered their comments by 4 p.m. Thursday.

Back up north, along the St. Lawrence River, Alexandria Town Supervisor Brent M. Sweet said he’s also looking to hear more input from town residents before coming to a conclusion on allowing retail sales of marijuana in town.

As with every other local government, Mr. Sweet noted the issue is up to the Town Board, but after speaking with the board’s membership, they’ve agreed they need a better sense of the public’s opinion.

He said he’s reached out to Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown, who represents the town in Albany, for more information about what the new law specifically entails, but has not yet heard back. The full text of the more than 300-page bill was only made public on March 27.

“We want to continue the learning process and get educated further as to what this is all about,” he said. “We very much want to take the pulse of the constituents and taxpayers as to how they feel.”

As both villages and towns can decide for themselves what they will do, it’s possible a village could allow dispensaries to open while the surrounding town decides to ban them, or vice versa — in that scenario it would be possible that a dispensary could open just outside of a municipality that has banned them within its borders.

Mr. Sweet said he doesn’t think that scenario would happen with Alexandria and the village of Alexandria Bay, because the town and village work closely together.

“This is something where we would definitely communicate and have a discussion with the village about,” he said.

Village of Alexandria Bay Mayor Stephen E. Jarvis said the village has no position on the topic at the moment.

“We have to look at what the law really says about how this can be governed,” he said. “We have no concrete information until we get a copy of it and look at it with our lawyer.”

Although the MRTA is officially the law of the land in New York and many aspects are already in effect, certain provisions will take a long time to start up. It’s estimated it will take between 18 months to two years for the first retail dispensaries to open in the state.

“The actual revenue stream coming from it is quite a ways off,” Mayor McDougall said.

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