Cities and towns across New York are considering whether to allow retail cannabis dispensaries and consumption lounges legalized under state law to operate within their jurisdictions, with some officials urging them to act as a deadline approaches.

In March, the New York state legislature and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved legislation to legalize marijuana for adults and establish a regulated and taxed economy for the commercial production and sale of cannabis. Under that legislation, municipal governments have the right to opt out of the establishment of licensed cannabis dispensaries and consumption lounges within their borders. Towns and cities that decide not to allow such businesses must hold a referendum on the ban if at least 20 percent of registered voters sign petitions calling for such a vote.

During a recent webinar, Sarah Brancatell, the legislative director for the New York State Association of Towns, warned municipal leaders that do not want cannabis lounges and retailers in their communities that they have only until the end of the year to approve a local ordinance. Cities and towns that do not opt out before that time will not be able to in the future.

“The local law has to be adopted on or before Dec. 31, 2021. That’s coming up really quickly,” said Brancarella. “It’s like a one or done shot. If you adopt it on Jan. 1, it has no effect.”

New York Local Officials Taking Action

Municipal leaders across the state have begun to take notice, and movements to enact bans on cannabis businesses are already underway. In North Salem, a suburb of New York City in Westchester County, the Town Board has set a hearing to be held June 22 via Zoom on a proposed opt-out ordinance. At a meeting of the board on May 25, Supervisor Warren Lucas said that if the town opts out of the businesses, the decision can be reversed at a later date.

“At some point in time, when we see how it all works, there’s always an option of going back in. But once we opt in, we can never opt out,” Supervisor Warren Lucas said.

Councilman Martin Aronchick agreed, saying “now’s not the time” to opt in.

“It’s much smarter—if it’s ever going to happen—to just see how it’s working,” he said.

Lucas added that “we are a farming community,” noting that he has received input from constituents who are interested in growing cannabis and others who are concerned about having cultivation operations located in the community, although local leaders do not have the power to ban cannabis growers licensed by the state.

“I’ve had people call me up saying the kids don’t really need a marijuana farm in town,” Lucas said. “They’d be there on the weekends picking buds. So, I think what we do is just approach this cautiously.”

Lucas predicted a mixed response from local residents in New York, saying that “we’re going to have a couple of people show up and say it’s a wonderful thing and a bunch show up to tell us we’re crazy for even considering this, (that) we should not have it in the town of North Salem. I know stuff like this, it falls on both sides.”

The Kent Town Board is also considering the issue of cannabis dispensaries and consumption lounges, with Supervisor Maureen Fleming calling for a referendum on the issue. Councilman Chris Ruthven, however, called for an immediate vote to opt out of cannabis retailers and consumption lounges.

“I’m ready to vote to ban the dispensaries,” Ruthven said at a June 1 meeting. “I’m having a hard time comprehending that our state made this legal. I don’t think it was a good idea by the state, and I’m not going to do anything to help support it in any way shape or form.”

Whether or not local officials in New York approve licensed cannabis dispensaries and lounges to operate in their jurisdictions, it is clear from the failed War on Drugs that cannabis sales will occur. It’s up to city leaders to decide whether at least some of that commerce occurs at retailers that are regulated and taxed by the state.