New York towns have just two weeks left to ban cannabis stores and consumption lounges under the state’s marijuana legalization law signed earlier this year. Those that don't opt-out by December 31 cannot restrict operations going forward, and the timeline has triggered a flurry of local government hearings where the safety and benefit of legal marijuana are being debated anew.
So far, elected officials in 28% of New York’s more than 1,500 municipalities have voted to opt out of allowing dispensaries, while 32% opted out of consumption sites, according to the Rockefeller Institute of Government, which is tracking the votes, though no clear pattern has emerged. Communities that have voted no span the political and geographic divide.
New York City is not opting out. Towns in the Hamptons are.
But the contours of the debate underway are similar throughout the state: Supporters want tax revenue from cannabis stores and see marijuana as alcohol's less harmful little cousin. Opponents voice concern over what effect marijuana will have on children.
At a hearing in Hempstead, Long Island, last week, residents were invited to have their say before a vote by the town council. Located just beyond the eastern border of Queens in Nassau County, Hempstead is home to nearly 800,000 people and includes dozens of hamlets and villages.
“We do not want to become the sixth borough of New York City,” said resident Liz Boylan. “We do not want to see our children put in a hole they cannot get out of.”
Heather Trela, the director of operations at the Rockefeller Institute, said those who oppose marijuana sales in their towns also worry about the uncertainty over what a cannabis store means for a community.
“Some are opting out because they're concerned about the impact of a dispensary or consumption lounge on the character of their town,” she said. “Will that bring in too many visitors? Will it impact their day-to-day parking? Very mundane issues.”
Supporters of cannabis sales at the Hempstead meeting spoke of the medical benefits of cannabis and the tax revenue that stores and consumption sites could raise. They warned officials not to be swayed by “fear tactics.”
“Your children will buy marijuana, they will buy it. They already are, and they already are smoking it,” said Sean Corbett, a local resident who argued that retail stores selling regulated marijuana will be safer than what can be bought on the black market, which can be laced with dangerous drugs. “We as marijuana users are advocating for safe marijuana for everybody.”
Stephen Grunwald, who also spoke at the meeting, described the downtown of his Hempstead hamlet of Baldwin as economically depressed. “They've been talking about revitalizing it,” he said. “You know what? Why don't we get some of these big marijuana companies in there to put up some nice stores? It'll attract some bars and restaurants.”
And yet, Hempstead’s council voted unanimously to opt out of marijuana retail stores and consumption sites, though that decision is reversible down the line — either through a voter referendum, or another vote by council.
It will also still be legal to consume marijuana in Hempstead and all other opt -out towns. Residents will just have to cross town lines to buy it.
Stores are expected to open in roughly a year — though there is no set deadline — after the state Office of Cannabis Management releases final rules and regulations for licensing. Under the law, New York will collect a 9% tax for the state and 4% for local governments where stores are located.