ALBANY — Numerous municipalities across New York are likely to opt out of the state’s new initiative allowing marijuana dispensaries to open, according to local government experts.
The state’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, signed into law March 31, gives local governments until Dec. 31 to take themselves out of the mix of communities where marijuana shops would be opened.
If the municipalities don’t opt out by then, said Peter Baynes, director of the state Conference of Mayors, then the businesses can move in as long as they are in compliance with local zoning regulations.
“They have to do it by Dec. 31, or hold their peace,” Baynes said of municipalities. They retain the option of later choosing to allow the pot shops and consumption lounges.
With more than seven months before the deadline, many mayors and other municipal leaders are using the time to study their options and weigh what they perceive as potential negative impacts from hosting a cannabis business versus the potential revenue that could be reeled in from regulated sales of marijuana products, Baynes said.
“Because of the way the state wrote the law, with the one-time opt out, I suspect a lot of communities, especially smaller suburban and rural ones, are going to decide to opt out, as a sort of placeholder,” he predicted.
Those that do opt out could still change their minds later and get involved with the cannabis program.
“I think there will be a large number of villages and some cities that decide to opt out and sort of sit back and see how the new law rolls out, no pun intended,” Baynes said.
The Conference of Mayors has posted a model ordinance for opting out on it web site: nycom.org/images/documents/cannabis/MRTA_Summary_-_April_15_2021.pdf
Local officials have also raised a host of questions as to whether they can regulate the smoking of marijuana in public spaces, since the law allows pot to be possessed by individuals whether the municipality allows cannabis shops or not.
In order to ban marijuana smoking, the smoking of tobacco products and vaping would have to be prohibited as well, Baynes said.
“Municipalities can’t bifurcate the definition of smoking,” he said. “The state has already preempted that area.”
The online analysis of the new law posted online by the conference does offer a breakdown of where marijuana smoking is prohibited. For instance, smoking weed is not allowed in places of employment, bars, restaurants, indoor areas with a swimming pool, public transportation terminals, college campuses, including dormitories, daycare centers, and group homes for youths.
The conference also explains the law bars employers from discriminating against individuals based marijuana use, though it does permit persons to be discipline or fired if other laws or regulations mandate such actions or if the employee is impaired on the job.
Patrick Phelan, director of the New York State Association of Police Chiefs, said members of group have many concerns with the new law. One major concern involves the enforcement of local ordinances restricting smoking in public places.
“Some chiefs are instructing their officers not to to intervene in what are commonly referred to as low-level offenses and not to take proactive enforcement actions,” said Phelan, the former police chief in the Rochester suburb of Greece.
Phelan said he has already reached out to counterparts in Massachusetts, where marijuana sales were legalized in 2018, to get input on their policing experiences.
The state law also allows for the licensing of on-site marijuana consumption lounges. Local governments that decide to ban retail dispensaries can also keep out the lounges, but they would have to act by Dec. 31.
A state Cannabis Control Board would be empowered to issue the licenses for the consumption establishments. The board could consider such factors as impacts on traffic, parking and the noise that would be generated at such businesses.
The cannabis law spells out requirements that efforts are made to assist minority and women‐owned businesses, distressed farmers, and service‐disabled veterans who want to create businesses regulated under the statute.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org