The only smoke wafting over Veteran’s Park during Hornell’s July 4 fireworks show came from the explosive entertainment overhead, and that’s just how the city’s Quality of Life Committee wanted it.
The Hornell Common Council banned smoking, vaping, cannabis and all other tobacco use within municipal parks in a unanimous vote during its June meeting. The city is the first local government in the area to take action curbing cannabis use after New York state legalized recreational marijuana earlier this year.
The smoking ordinance was crafted by the Quality of Life Committee and quickly approved by the Law and Ordinance Committee before the vote by the full Council, with an eye on implementation before the July 4 celebration.
“We were trying to get ahead of any potential disruption to a family-style event like this if there were no ordinances with regard to smoking, vaping and cannabis use,” said Deputy Mayor Jessica Cleveland, who represents the 6th Ward and chairs the committee. “The goal is not to be punitive as much as it is to be educational.”
The city did not have a previous law on the books formally restricting smoking in local parks. An old resolution requested residents refrain from lighting up in parks, but it lacked any enforcement measures. The new ordinance allows Hornell police to issue fines of $50 to $250.
In a related move, the Common Council added cannabis to a list of substances prohibited within 30 feet of school bus stops while students are present, either waiting to enter a school bus or exiting the bus.
Mayor John Buckley called the measures a “first step” in the city addressing the state’s decision to legalize marijuana. Buckley said that decision “creates a myriad of quality of life issues that local governments have to deal with.” The city is also considering the impact of marijuana and “nuisance smoke” in residential neighborhoods.
“Now that marijuana use is legal in New York state, what recourse do residents have to protect themselves in their own homes?” asked Buckley. “An example would be marijuana smoke coming in your children’s bedroom window from your neighbor’s property. I don’t think the state has considered these situations or much less cares. I do care and that is why we will continue these discussions with the Quality of Life Committee and the full Council.”
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‘A tough battle right now’
Hornell’s ordinance covers all municipal parks, such as Veteran’s Park at James Street and the Shawmut Park (including the Shawmut Trail), plus any city-sponsored summer recreational program. The new legislation states that smoking in municipal parks “poses a potential threat to the health and well-being of park-goers including children and adults of all ages, due to the possible exposure of second-hand smoke/vaping.”
Susan Hooker, Executive Director of Hornell Area Concern for Youth, was happy to see the city take action. Concern for Youth utilizes city parks and the summer rec program, which offers activities at the former Bryant School playground nearby.
“There’s enough other places people can use those products. It’s mostly kids in the park during the summer,” said Hooker. “They don’t need to have that influence and be breathing in other people’s secondhand smoke. I think it was a good move on the city’s part. People are trying to set a good example for their kids and somebody at the next picnic table could be smoking marijuana. It causes some difficulties. We’re trying to convince kids in the school system not to use these products.
“It’s a tough battle right now.”
Hornell City School District Superintendent Jeremy Palotti said the district has not been involved with the city’s decision-making process, but it supports efforts to restrict vaping and marijuana use near bus stops and in city parks.
According to the CDC, heavy marijuana use during teenage years may harm the brain, which is still actively developing. Negative effects may also include difficulty thinking and problem solving, problems with memory and learning, impaired coordination, and difficulty maintaining attention. Long-term marijuana use is linked to school dropout and lower educational achievement, notes the CDC.
Marijuana possession remains illegal for New Yorkers under 21. Concern for Youth has historically conducted marijuana educational programs during the school year and into the summer and the organization doesn’t plan to stop those efforts.
“It’s still not legal for young people. It can delay a lot of learning processes,” said Hooker. “We give kids a chance to talk about it. We don’t give them horror stories, you have to really stick to the facts and why it isn’t good for young people to use. It’s a little tougher now because kids are seeing adults using.”
No different than a bar or liquor store
Hornell Police Chief Ted Murray said the department has fielded several complaints regarding marijuana use in the city, but “nothing major.” Hornell officers have yet to fine anyone since the city’s new ordinance went into effect in late June.
“We’ve had some complaints about the smell in different neighborhoods,” said Murray. “When we point out to people who may be consuming it that they’re bothering other people in their neighborhood, they are generally pretty responsible about mitigating that disturbance.”
Marijuana arrests have been falling in Hornell for years as use has gained greater social acceptance. City police made 52 marijuana-related arrests in 2018, more than any other illicit substance. By 2020, that number dropped to 19.
“If you look statistically over the years marijuana arrests have gone down, and certainly our enforcement of small amounts of marijuana have been down,” said Murray. “The court system hasn’t really been harsh on people with marijuana charges and that kind of reflects what we’ve been doing.”
Hornell — and every other municipality across the state — will have a few decisions to make in the coming months. within their borders. Opting out would come with a financial cost. Marijuana sales will be taxed at a rate of 14%, with 9% going to the state, 3% to the city, town or village where the sale is made and 1% to the county.
Buckley said the Quality of Life Committee and the Common Council will ultimately decide on how Hornell proceeds.
“On the regulatory side, municipalities are prohibited from placing additional regulations on dispensaries,” said Buckley. “There was much discussion at the recent NYCOM (New York Conference of Mayors) conference I attended on this topic. Basically, NYCOM officials say that under the law, dispensaries should not be treated any different than a bar or liquor store.”
Hornell’s Quality of Life Committee utilized NYCOM guidance in directing its ordinance at all nuisance smoke, and not singling out marijuana. Cleveland anticipates the committee will have several more healthy debates as it explores an issue that has “enormous reach in its impact on the local community.”
“The legalization of marijuana is huge culture change and can provoke emotional reactions whether you are for it or against it,” said Cleveland. “We tried very hard to keep the conversation to just the quality of life aspect of it, as it’s easy for a change like this to be overwhelming. There’s a lot to it.”
No matter what the city ultimately decides, Hooker is happy that city parks, at least, will be free of marijuana smoke.
“You want people to feel they can go to their parks,” said Hooker. “If there’s a lot of people smoking marijuana or vaping, many families aren’t going to want to go. That seems exclusive.”