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Southolders voice support for retail marijuana opt-out; town will vote Dec. 28

A handful of Southold residents supported opting out of the retail sale of marijuana within Southold Town at a sparsely attended public hearing Tuesday night.

Municipalities have until the end of this month to choose to opt out of allowing on-site consumption and/or retail dispensaries from locating and operating within town boundaries. The town may reverse an opt-out decision, but the opportunity to prohibit retail sales and/or consumption sites within municipal boundaries will disappear after Dec. 31.

Four residents urged the Town Board to take advantage of the opt-out opportunity, primarily citing concerns about the lack of guidance from the state so far and how retail marijuana stores and lounges could impact local youth. A hemp farmer from Moriches also spoke at the hearing against the opt-out.

“I’m here in support of an opt-out,” said Southold resident Terence Kelleher. “I would first like to say I have no position about the legalization of marijuana. I think it probably was time for that, but I think that the New York legislature has imposed this in a very heavy-handed way.” 

He acknowledged that marijuana shops might not open right away — “they’re predicting that these marijuana shops may not be open until 2023, it’s probably more likely ‘22” — but expressed concern about slow action at the Office of Cannabis Management. 

The Rockefeller Institute of Government notes that final appointments to the Cannabis Control Board and the Office of Cannabis Management were only made in September, and the Cannabis Control Board held its first meeting on Oct. 5. Delayed state guidance has directly impacted municipality decisions, the institute says. 

“They have imposed a couple of rules as to licenses, etc., but there’s so much that’s not known about it,” Mr. Kelleher said. 

He expressed concern about the “head shop” next to the library. A newly opened smoke shop on Main Road is near Southold Free Library.

“I walked by the place and there were all these, what they call bong pipes lining the wall, all different colors, and I thought to myself, ‘what are these students in the grammar schools and high schools [who] walk by here and wonder what this is all about,’ ” he said. 

He alluded to newly elected Town Board member Greg Doroski’s slogan, “opt out until we figure it out,” saying it’s “too early to decide this.” The marijuana consumption lounges, wherever they might be, raise concerns about intoxication and he said while it’s unlikely a license would be issued next to a library, “in a small town like this and all of these small towns out here, it does not seem to be appropriate.” 

“I think that this board should opt out and allow itself the time to deliberate on all these issues, because if you don’t, I think you’re going to be on the defensive constantly,” he said. “I think that you should be allowed the opportunity to take it and see what happens in the interim.” 

Mattituck resident Jean Schweibish similarly encouraged the Town Board to opt out. 

“It doesn’t seem like the state has any guidelines in place,” she said. “I feel like we’re guinea pigs. Riverhead has already decided to be a guinea pig. I don’t think we should.”

Jackie Kanarvogel, a new Mattituck resident and a youth substance prevention specialist for HUGS in Westhampton, said the town should opt out for now and learn from what’s going on in other towns.

She said she has “no qualms against responsible and safe adult use of marijuana,” but expressed concern about how it might impact local teens.  

“Allowing smoke sites and dispensaries within the borders of Southold Town will only further normalize a culture of substance use,” she said. 

Even though the sites would be designated for adults over 21, she said local youth could still find the drug more accessible. Although the potential tax revenue could be a pull, “it’s very minimal amounts of money for the risk factor that you’re bringing into the lives of the youth in the area,” she said. 

“The New York State legislature has imposed this in a very heavy-handed way.”

Terence Kelleher

Cannabis products are subject to a 4% local excise tax, according to the Office of Cannabis Management. A quarter of that revenue would go to the county and the rest “to the cities, town or villages within the county as a proportion of cannabis sales,” the state says.

Ms. Kanarvogel added that she regularly listens to the Cannabis Control Board meetings and there’s “no specificity at all about how this is supposed to roll out.”

“There’s way too many questions,” she said. “I would appreciate the opportunity to learn about how this is going to go before we put our youth in harm’s way.”

Ryan Andoos, a licensed hemp farmer from Moriches, pointed out that Riverhead seems intent to keep retail marijuana stores and smoke lounges away from areas like the library and downtown Main Street. 

He said that opting out doesn’t prevent deliveries coming into Southold from Riverhead and expressed concern that local small businesses might lose the opportunity to apply for licenses.

Riverhead has created a committee to establish regulations for marijuana sale in town. The deputy town attorney said at a recent meeting that areas near locations like churches, schools, parks and playgrounds are off limits for marijuana purchase or consumption and municipalities can restrict the “time, place and manner” of its use.

“As far as big business goes, I think opting in would keep big business out more than opting out. If you opt in you can work with fellow community members and people in this town to keep that revenue here, whereas you have some of the larger medical dispensaries where that’s all been big business and all corporate money and that money goes out of the town,” Mr. Andoos said. 

He also pointed out that the town can opt out of consumption lounges and keep dispensaries, but acknowledged the state has “rushed it a little bit.” He added that he’s been growing hemp for three years and can answer questions from local residents.

Supervisor Scott Russell acknowledged that hemp can already be grown in Southold and said a license has already gone to a “very deep-pocketed corporation.” He added that whether the town opts in or out, retail sales likely won’t happen until 2023. 

“One of my concerns is this notion of local businesses and you know, it’s going to be so great to the agricultural community, seems naive at best because of the amount of money that’s been invested in this very lucrative industry,” Mr. Russell said.

He pointed out that the town only has this one opportunity to opt out; it can’t opt out later. 

“The issue was, if we let this pass us by, we can’t really sit down and craft code and those things in the dark. A lot of the state guidelines, they haven’t been adopted. Yes, there are outlines as to what they want to do but they’re virtually meaningless when you try to craft code around them,” he said.

Mr. Andoos said he agreed that medical marijuana so far has been dominated by big business, but said recreational marijuana is more limited “to [break] up … that vertical integration.” He added that only a certain number of licenses will be issued. 

“By the time you opt back in … there may not be any more licenses left in order to put here,” he said. “It would be the Town of Riverhead and tons of delivery services coming up to the North Fork.”

Mr. Russell responded that there’s no reason to assume licenses will be “gobbled up” because they won’t be issued for “some time,” and said limited licenses will be issued on a jurisdictional basis, based on current guidelines. 

“That’s been raised as an issue, but there’s no basis in that sense, licenses are no less than 18 months, possibly two years, away from being issued,” he said. “We just want to be thoughtful and thorough.”

Toward the end of the hearing, Mr. Russell said he’s spent months reviewing the legislation that’s been established so far and started to try to build code but “it’s very difficult without the guides.”

The hearing has been left open for written comment. The Town Board plans to vote in a special meeting on Dec. 28 at 7 p.m.

Mr. Russell said there have been several emails over several months to support permitting the sale of retail marijuana, but they weren’t sent in the context of a public hearing.

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