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Most of Suffolk County opts out of retail pot in 2022

marijuana cannabis
Courtesy David Falkowski

Local governments in New York have until the end of the month to opt out of retail marijuana sales. Once a town opts out, they can participate at any time, but once pot is sold, there is no turning back.

So far, about 30% of local governments banned the sale of pot. Even more cities, towns and villages have opted out of regulating where pot is allowed to be consumed in public.

A week away from the deadline, East Hampton, Huntington, Smithtown, Shelter Island and Islip towns have opted out, according to the Rockefeller Institute of Government. Brookhaven has limited the marijuana sales to industrial zones. Several downtown villages, such as Port Jefferson, Patchogue, and Sag Harbor, have also banned the sale of marijuana.

Riverhead and Babylon will allow sales. Southampton will take a vote before the end of the year but is not expected to opt out.

The state Cannabis Control Board is expected to issue specific regulations about how vendors will be licensed to sell marijuana by next fall. Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri said he needs more guidance from the state about how to enforce regulations the village would put in place before he would be open to revisiting the issue.

“Until the Cannabis Control Board does what it's supposed to do and does it fairly, with public hearings, with open debate, with questions to municipalities; I got a couple years on this term, you won't see me bring it up before the [village] board,” he said.

Pontieri said he is concerned allowing cannabis consumption would force the village to regulate their stance on other substances, alcohol and cigarettes. For example, drinking is banned on the streets, and smoking is banned indoors.

“If you and I are out on the street, and you are drinking a beer, I'm smoking a joint, and we're both doing it for the same reason," he said. “If I can smoke mine, but you can't drink yours, and you get a violation, a $250 fine and I get to walk away feeling good. Do we have to change our code? We don't know how to handle it.”

Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar did not vote to approve sales because she did not feel the town was ready. However, the town board voted 3-2 not to opt out. She said she is now working to ensure proper zoning measures are put in place.

“I most certainly don't want it near a hospital, churches, anywhere near children and especially near our town square that we are building as a community effort,” she said. “I don't think that our children… should be exposed to the smell and seeing people smoking marijuana.”

“We're not ready,” she continued. “Could we be ready? Absolutely, but just voting it in without any legislation, without knowing where the use is going to be, where the sale is going to be, and how we're going to monitor if we see an increase in vehicular accidents is very concerning to me.”

In Brookhaven, Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich said because other tribal councils on Long Island are getting involved with retail marijuana, the town saw the benefit in allowing sales.

“We have tremendous traffic and traffic congestion around the tribal land in Mastic where people go to buy cigarettes and gas,” he said. “If that were one of the only places where you could get it, it was going to really place a burden on people in those communities.”

The Shinnecock Indian Nation is also preparing for the sale of recreational marijuana on its territory in eastern Long Island.

In Brookhaven, changes to the town’s zoning code were passed unanimously this summer. It requires marijuana retail stores to be at least a mile apart, and bans them from being located within 500 feet of a home and 1,000 feet of a school, park, playground, place of worship, hospital, downtown business district and other locations. The town has also banned smoking cannabis in places where cigarettes are illegal.

“We want there to be very, very few places where it can be sold," Kornreich continued.

Local governments are allowed to regulate where marijuana is sold and consumed in public, but they cannot ban pot possession or private use. The state will grant half of the allowed licenses to applicants from low-income and communities of color disproportionately impacted by drug policing.

The state is expected to generate around $350 million in tax revenue from marijuana sales, around 4% of which will be allocated to towns, which will share a percentage of that with villages. The state’s take is 9%.

David Falkowski, a hemp farmer in Bridgehampton, said he wants to expand his products to sell recreational marijuana, but the village of Sag Harbor, where he has a retail store, opted out.

“For those of us who live in and operate in Sag Harbor, that's where my people are and that's where my resources are," he said. “If those opportunities are removed from me, it'll be somebody else who has a larger war chest and scope of capability that's going to set up in the next town line over.”

“I'm not hearing the language that we are opting out of, now we are forming a task force to investigate these things to look deeper into it,” he continued. “That's what I want to hear and that's what I'm advocating for.”

Falkowski said cannabis retailers face more challenges that hamper their sales, including increased insurance costs, high compliance and audit fees when banking, and finding a local bank that will work with them — since marijuana is not federally legalized.

Pro-cannabis advocates said legal retail marijuana will help consumers consume safe products and curb black market sales.

“A large part of the illicit market is made up by cartels and really bad actors …. So really the biggest argument is ‘do you want to continue to give money to potentially bad people, or at least we know when we spend money in a regulated dispensary?’” Falkowski asked.

Leah is a former intern with WSHU Public Radio.