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As deadline approaches, town sets hearing on marijuana opt-out

Southold Town plans to hold a public hearing in two weeks on potentially prohibiting the sale of retail marijuana.

The Town Board may keep the Dec. 14 hearing open for comment until Dec. 28, when the board would vote in a special meeting on whether to opt out of allowing on-site consumption and/or retail dispensaries from locating and operating within town boundaries. 

Municipalities have until the end of the year to choose an opt-out. Although the decision can be reversed later, the opportunity to prohibit the sale of retail marijuana and/or smoke lounges within municipal boundaries will disappear after Dec. 31. 

Town Supervisor Scott Russell pointed out at a Tuesday work session that the state has not yet issued guidelines for zoning or other regulations.

“I don’t know about what the restrictions are going to be, how many licenses there are going to be, I don’t know any of those things,” he said. “So the problem is, I feel like I’m trying to develop zoning in the dark.”

He expressed concern that the state could hand down guidelines as late as 2023 and pointed out that the Office of Cannabis Management only filled positions in September. 

According to the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the Cannabis Control Board and Office of Cannabis Management have been charged with developing licensing regulations for dispensaries and lounges. Appointments were not finalized until September, and the Cannabis Control Board only held its first meeting on Oct. 5. 

The institute notes that the delayed state guidance has directly impacted local decision-making. Municipalities that decide to opt out “frequently cite the lack of clarity on the licensing requirements and other regulations for marijuana retail businesses,” it says. 

Greenport chose to opt out on Monday night in a split vote. Village trustees who voted for the opt-out cited regulatory concerns and emphasized the lack of guidance from the state.

Town Board member Louisa Evans pointed out that the town can “hedge” for now. “If you don’t opt out, you can’t opt out at another point the way it stands now,” she said. 

Mr. Russell alluded to a conversation with Greg Doroski, who will become a member of the Town Board in the new year. Mr. Doroski in his campaign pushed for the town to “opt out until we figure it out.”

“The understanding was look, we’re not saying we’re against sales or against consumption sites, what we’re saying is we need some guidance here from the state,” Mr. Russell said. “I also mentioned to [Mr. Doroski] there might be a benefit to letting it take place in other towns to figure out what their pitfalls and challenges are and that way we can try to zone around them.”

Ms. Evans agreed. The town can always opt back in later, she emphasized, but if it doesn’t opt out now, it’s “stuck.”

“There’s a very good argument for having them in the town but at the same time if we’re going to have it in the town, we’d better know what we’re doing and have it set up correctly,” she said. 

Mr. Russell acknowledged that the town should have discussed the opt-out sooner, because “people did have the right to pass a petition” for a referendum but said the lack of answers from the state has held things up.