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Is marijuana the North Fork’s next big crop?

New York is getting closer to legal marijuana.

Those were the first eight words of a recent New York Times story following the announcement by New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker that he would soon issue a recommendation that the drug be legalized for recreational use in the state.

That announcement, which followed a study commissioned by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has caught the attention of stakeholders across the North Fork, from local government officials to agricultural leaders and administrators at Suffolk County’s only current medical marijuana dispensary.

Any change in regulations is particularly significant for this region, where large tracts of land are already dedicated to agriculture and extensive greenhouse infrastructure is already in place. Existing farmland could also become even more valuable with the legalization of marijuana.

Months before Mr. Zucker’s announcement, Long Island Wine Country pioneer Louisa Hargrave, who now works in real estate, speculated at a meeting of Southold Town’s alcohol farm products working group that venture capitalists are already buying land here with an eye toward growing marijuana once it’s legalized. Ms. Hargrave, co-founder of Hargrave Vineyard, which planted the region’s first grapes in the early 1970s, urged town and agricultural industry leaders to pay attention in case legalization were ever to occur. 

In a recent interview, Ms. Hargrave suggested that legalization could allow area farms to diversify their businesses beyond existing crops.

“Today’s farming is changing,” she said. “We need to have the flexibility.”

Long Island Farm Bureau administrative director Rob Carpenter said his organization, which advocates on behalf of the more than 500 farms in the region, has not taken an official position on legalizing marijuana. That is, however, something he expects farmers to discuss in the months ahead through the LIFB’s policy development process.

He said the farm bureau does consider the cultivation of marijuana — for either recreational or medical use — an agricultural practice. 

“The farm bureau believes, based on our policy, that growers believe that this should be an agricultural commodity, not anything else,” Mr. Carpenter said. “That way, it would give agriculture, and hopefully the Department of Agriculture for New York, purview over this crop and industry from a growing aspect.”

He noted that it’s likely premature to assume recreational legalization will pass any time soon. If and when it does, he added, it’s also likely to be heavily regulated. 

Just how regulation might affect the growing of marijuana remains unclear: Would it even be allowed in open fields or in greenhouses located along heavily trafficked roads?

Current reports certainly suggest that recreational marijuana will eventually be big business in New York State. A Forbes analysis recently reported revenue from medical marijuana sales in New York State at more than $40 million. Another recent report, from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, estimated the market for recreational marijuana statewide at more than $3 billion, which would mean hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue.

Ivy Acres Inc., a greenhouse company in Baiting Hollow, was behind an organization that sought approval in 2015 to grow marijuana for medical use. It was a long and costly application process, which they said at the time set them back close to a half-million dollars. Their bid failed to gain support from the Riverhead Town Board — an important factor in the process — and was ultimately rejected by the state.

But owners Jack and Kurt Van de Wetering, who shopped the plan to stakeholders across Riverhead Town, said at the time it was worth the risk, as their research projected more than $400 million in annual revenues from one medical marijuana growing operation alone.

Riverhead did, however, become home to the county’s first medical marijuana dispensary, which is still operated on West Main Street by Columbia Care. That group’s CEO, Nicholas Vita, said he thinks regulations on recreational marijuana in New York State need to be rooted in data and evidence, with a strong focus on health policy, specifically. Whoever will enforce regulations, he said, needs to be at the table while policy is being developed. 

When asked if farmers are key stakeholders, Mr. Vita said yes, because marijuana is an agricultural product. 

“There’s no better group I can think of that can talk about the importance of nutrient lines and pesticides and productivity than farmers,” he said. 

However, Mr. Vita said he thinks the state Department of Health should regulate marijuana for recreational use.

“If this is a product that’s going to be used in a body or on a body, it obviously has to be manufactured and developed in a very particular set of ways to ensure safety and quality,” he said.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, who was not part of the board that declined to support the Van de Wetering application, said what happens in terms of legalization and regulation is still “a wait-and-see” but added that the positive impact it could have on Long Island agriculture is appealing to her.

“[I’m for] anything to sustain the farms here and make it economically viable, because it’s so difficult, especially with the high price of land out here,” she said.

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell recalls being approached by another company looking to produce marijuana in his town a few years back, as part of a proposal to the state.

“They wanted to get a sense of what the community reaction would be,” he said. “I told them that I won’t speculate, however, I am sure real concerns would be raised about issues such as security, local impacts, etc. I told them that it would be their responsibility to gauge public interest by including the public in the discussion.”

Mr. Russell said he did not take the proposal seriously because the man had not done his homework on the community. Mr. Russell said it’s safe to assume there will be interest in growing marijuana in Southold should the state approve it for recreational use.

“We also have to assume that it will be a heavily regulated industry,” he said.

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