Data sheds light on New York towns ruling out marijuana retailers

In recent months, SUNY researcher Heather Trela has passed her time knee-deep in municipal board minutes from across the state, sussing out localities’ takes on cannabis. 

As Dec. 31 approaches, each municipal board is facing their deadline to introduce an ordinance opting out of storefront marijuana retailers, which would allow them to bar dispensaries, on-site consumption lounges or both. Over 400 have already done so. 

“A big theme I saw was they just said, ‘we can’t opt into an unknown’,” Trela said, explaining that the state’s new cannabis regulators have yet to publicize any details on the rules or licensing process for the incoming adult-use cannabis marketplace. 

“It’s through no fault of their own, they got a late start,” she added, referring to the lag time between legalization in March and the appointment of top regulators this fall. “But there’s uncertainty. A lot of these municipalities have said we’re opting out for now, and they may reconsider with additional information.”

Trela, who is a fellow and the director of operations for SUNY’s Rockefeller Institute of Government, spearheaded the group’s recently-launched marijuana opt-out tracker. The searchable database will be updated on a rolling basis from her work reading minutes, news articles, legal notices and local laws. 

The database indicates if Trela found proof that each municipality decided whether to ban dispensaries, on-site consumption lounges, or both, as well as the dates of the decisions. Irrespective of new local laws, the possession and use of cannabis will remain legal across the state. 

The Rockefeller Institute is not the only group following these decisions closely:  Christopher Anderson, the research and programming director at the state’s Association of Towns, has been watching as constituents file their local laws with the Department of State. 

On Dec. 1, with one month to go before the deadline, Anderson said 138 of New York’s 933 towns — 15 percent  — filed local laws with the State Department to opt out of both retail sales and on-site consumption businesses, while an additional nine towns filed laws opting out of on-site lounges only. The same percentage of the state’s villages recorded their opt-outs before the final month:  83 of 534 filed laws to ban both types of marijuana businesses, while 6 villages nixed on-site consumption spaces only.

“You are seeing some regional concentrations, and I think that reflects some of the regional differences in the state,” Anderson said, citing Chautauqua County in Western New York as an example.

“The scenario that seemed to provoke the most interest among town officials was if the towns opt out, but a village within the town borders does not. Does the town still benefit from tax revenues? The answer is yes,” Anderson said. “But if the town opts in and a village within the town borders opts out, the village does not get to share in the tax revenue from the town. So it’s a one-way flow.”

While Anderson is focused on towns and villages, Trela is aiming to include all active municipal governments; currently, she is looking into 1,518, using those listed on the state website as a starting point. As of Dec. 6, she identified 441 of those municipalities who have passed laws opting out of either dispensaries or consumption sites.

Trela’s ongoing count is likely to remain higher throughout the month than the number of opt-out laws reported by the Department of State. She is updating the SUNY database from local sources on a daily basis, while there is a lag between when municipalities adopt a law and when they report it to the state.

In this case, local officials also need to submit their opt-out decision to the Office of Cannabis Management. Residents will also have 45 days after each law is passed to gather signatures and kick off a referendum that could overturn it.

Trela said many of the initial decisions of municipalities seem influenced by neighboring communities. 

“It was motivating in two ways: sometimes it was, ‘we don’t want to go against the grain. If everyone else is opting out, we don’t want to be the outlier’,” Trela said. “And in other communities, it was like ‘we do want to be the outlier, because there’s going to be demand.’”

While local governments will need to opt out of these adult-use cannabis businesses by the end of the month if they ever plan to do so, they can begin allowing such businesses again at any time. 

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