Four hours into a recent Pittsford village board meeting, the trustees were weighing a choice on the future of marijuana in their community.
Under the state law that legalized the recreational use of cannabis, local governments have until Dec. 31 to decide whether they want cannabis shops or consumption sites, like lounges, within their borders. They can choose to opt out and ban them, or do nothing and welcome them.
But Trustee Dan Keating wanted a third option: to let the people decide. The village’s lawyer assured him they could, as long as trustees first voted to opt out and then set a public referendum on the decision.
“That seems like a really reasonable answer, because what I heard at the last meeting was we don’t want to just say no, because if we say no then we look like stuffy old Pittsford is shutting down everything,” Keating said.
“We want to say no with a referendum, because I think we’re all on the same page on this,” he went on. “We want to hear the voice of the people.”
Scenes like the one at Pittsford Village Hall are taking place in municipalities across New York, where elected officials, acutely aware of public perception and reticent to take a stand on what opinion polls suggest may be a controversial decision, are finding ways to punt.
In the Syracuse area, for instance, the town of Geddes and the villages of Cazenovia, Minoa, and Camillus have all signaled that they plan to opt out and then hold a public vote on that decision. In New York, municipal governments can’t ask residents to vote on what action they should take, but when they take an action they can also set a referendum on it.
Surveys on the matter of recreational marijuana suggest that elected officials risk upsetting a large number of constituents whether they ban or approve dispensaries and lounges. The Siena Research Institute, which regularly polls New York voters, found in April that 57 percent of New Yorkers supported legalizing marijuana, while a not insignificant 36 percent opposed it.
Heather Trella, the director of operations and a fellow at the SUNY Rockefeller Institute of Government, doesn’t think the leaders of these communities are necessarily trying to dodge a weighty decision. She noted that the state has been slow to develop regulations for recreational cannabis, which many municipalities want to see before they make a decision.
Meanwhile, the Dec. 31 deadline to decide is hard and fast. Under state law, municipalities can only opt out once — before the end of the year — but they can opt back in any time.
“I think it’s not necessarily shirking their responsibility, I think it’s just trying to buy some time to present to their constituents what they’re actually agreeing to once there’s been more decisions made by the state,” said Trella, who has been tracking which governments are opting out of dispensaries and lounges.
Pittsford trustees are now working to adopt two measures to pave the way for their punt. The first would opt the village out of cannabis dispensaries and lounges, the other would put that decision to a public vote.
A debate over dispensaries in the village of Pittsford was inevitable. Officials and residents have, over the course of decades, worked to create an attractive, walkable village. Preserving that character and village history has been top of mind for generations of residents.
At the same time, the village’s affluence would likely be attractive to cannabis retailers, particularly those eager to associate themselves with the burgeoning wellness market. Dispensaries are often a far cry from the pipe and tobacco shops of old. Many exude the tranquil feel of a day spa or the sophistication of a luxury hotel, with high-end finishes and a refined shopping experience to boot.
But Pittsford is not the only Monroe County community weighing how it wants to handle a potential influx of cannabis-related establishments. The positions vary widely.
The city of Rochester under Mayor Lovely Warren has embraced the business and economic potential of legal marijuana and has no designs on blocking any aspect of the legal industry. Mayor-elect Malik Evans is also supportive of legalization and sees it as a way to spur entrepreneurship in the city.
On the other hand, officials just over the city line in Gates are advancing a measure to block both dispensaries and lounges. In Penfield, officials are moving to prohibit lounges but allow dispensaries.
In Perinton and Fairport, a split appears likely. Perinton officials are considering opting out altogether and are scheduling a public hearing on their proposal in November, although an exact date has yet to be set.
But Fairport, as an incorporated village inside the town, gets to decide for itself whether to allow those businesses within its borders. In recent weeks, Fairport officials have had in-depth discussions about how the village should approach cannabis legalization.
During one September work session, the trustees, mayor, and village administrator talked about potential tax revenues from retail shops, likened dispensaries to liquor stores and on-site consumption establishments to bars, and said they needed to weigh the businesses’ possible effects on residents’ health and quality of life.
To that end, village officials are proposing a law to outlaw the smoking and vaping of tobacco and cannabis in public parks or buildings. Violators would be subject to fines between $25 and $250 or up to 15 days in jail; although, when it comes to anti-smoking law violations, fines are far more common than jail.
“It was just something that we noticed we didn’t have on the books and thought it was really important to reinforce that our parks in our village are smoke-free areas,” Mayor Julie Domaratz said in a recent interview.
Trustees seemed more open to allowing retail sales of marijuana than cannabis lounges.
But Bryan White, the village manager, told them to consider that cannabis will be accessible to residents and, likely, within the community, regardless of what they decide.
“My perspective is take the tax dollars,” White said. “The restriction of not opting into at least retail doesn’t change the access with respect to this at all.”
It is noteworthy that if Perinton blocks the establishments but Fairport allows them, the town will still get a cut of the revenue they generate in the form of sales tax from the village.
Bruce Barcott, a writer and senior editor of the marijuana news and consumer research website Leafly, made a similar point in an opinion piece. Barcott noted that he’s covered the rollout of cannabis legalization in more than a dozen states and argued that opting out of retail sales only keeps the illicit market alive.
“These local bans function as a stimulus package for the town’s back-alley weed dealers — who don’t check IDs at the door,” Barcott wrote.
Jeremy Moule is CITY’s news editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.