LAKE PLACID — The North Elba Town Council delayed making a decision on cannabis dispensaries and on-site consumption licenses during its regular meeting on Tuesday. Instead, the board scheduled a special meeting to vote on its cannabis laws this Friday.
Recreational marijuana was legalized statewide in March, and local governments have until Dec. 31 to pass local laws opting out of allowing dispensaries and/or on-site consumption licensing within their boundaries. If local governments don’t opt out by Dec. 31, their municipality will automatically be opted in.
The town council tabled its vote on its proposed opt-out laws after board members decided they needed more counsel from town attorney Ron Briggs on opt-out procedures. The board expects to vote on the laws during a special meeting at the North Elba Town Hall at 10 a.m. on Friday. Anyone can attend the meeting in person or online via GoToMeeting at https://www.gotomeet.me/townofnorthelba/board-meeting.
The council held a public hearing on its opt-out laws at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, one hour before the board’s scheduled 6 p.m. meeting. More than 40 people attended the hearings online and in person and at least 15 of those people spoke. The hearings took up the entire hour.
Public support for opting out varied. People who supported opting in, or voting against the opt out laws, spoke about the tax revenue dispensaries could bring to the town, the regulation of cannabis quality and who can purchase cannabis products, and said that dispensaries and on-site consumption bars would offer a variety of products — not just products that would be smoked — that can be a benefit to people’s health.
There will be a 13% tax on cannabis sales. Of that, 9% would go to the state, 3% to the local government where the sale took place and 1% to the county where that local government is located.
North Elba resident Brendan Donovan said that much like how restaurants that offer alcoholic beverages bring revenue to the town, the town should think about the added revenue from local restaurants that could offer cannabis with food with on-site consumption licenses.
Donovan said that he thinks dispensary sales would keep cannabis tax revenue local, and he said regulating cannabis would help keep it out of kids’ hands.
“When I was 18 and 19, it was way easier for me to buy pot than it was for me to get alcohol,” he said. “I think it’s easier when we know who in town is buying it and who’s selling it.”
People who urged the board to opt out of allowing dispensaries and on-site consumption licensing raised concerns about the newness of the state’s recreational cannabis legalization and legislation, the effect they believe dispensaries and on-site consumption could have on local youth, and their belief that the board should opt out so people can vote on the laws and have the final say.
Local laws opting out of allowing cannabis dispensaries and on-site consumption licensing are subject to a permissive referendum. While villages can opt out and pass a resolution to place the laws on the ballot, towns have to wait for residents to file a petition to put the laws on a ballot. If enough residents sign a petition — at least 10% of the residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election — the laws can appear on the next general election ballot.
Essex County Board of Elections Republican Commissioner Allison McGahay, who lives in Lake Placid, said she thinks it’s unfortunate that the state’s cannabis legislation only gives towns a one-time opt out option. She said that she’s willing to leverage her position as an election commissioner to help people start a petition.
“If the town decides to opt out and have us vote, I have the language for a petition,” she said. “I can help you. We can put this on November’s ballot, and … I’m here to offer my assistance in whatever you need.”
Council members took turns sharing their thoughts on the opt out laws once the board meeting began.
Councilor Emily Politi said she thinks that when cannabis is regulated, it’s safer. She said having dispensaries would diversify the economy — not just add revenue from cannabis sales — and would benefit the local tourism-based economy. She said that she believes most of the history of laws banning marijuana are based in racism and prejudice, and she respects the state for “trying to make amends” by legalizing and decriminalizing cannabis.
“That’s something that weighs on my decision when I think about it,” she said. “When I think about people saying, ‘We don’t want it here’ — well, what don’t you want here?”
Politi added that she doesn’t think anyone has ever died from a weed overdose. At the end of her comments, a couple of people present for the board meeting briefly applauded.
Councilor Dick Cummings told Politi she “took a lot of (his) thunder,” and agreed that the town would be better off with regulated cannabis. He said he’s been in a couple of dispensaries and thought they were professionally-run, controlled atmospheres. He added that many people benefit medicinally from THC and that dispensaries don’t only sell products to smoke. The revenue from cannabis sales could go toward the “greater good,” he said, and he disagreed with people who said dispensaries would repel tourists.
“I guess you guys hit just about all the points I wanted to touch on,” Councilor Derek Doty said to Politi and Cummings.
Doty said he had concerns about the permissive referendum if the board opted out.
“I’m concerned that through the process, the whole voting public won’t be as educated as the people sitting around this table that will do our homework to make the best decision,” he said. “We’ve heard good things on both sides — if you think we’re all just set in our ways, it’s not the truth. I’m proud of this board and we have the ability to be smart enough in this decision.”
He added that he didn’t like that people were trying to draw a line between allowing legal, adult use cannabis and illegal cannabis use among youth.
Councilor Jack Favro said he thought North Elba would “survive” without the revenue the town would receive from cannabis sales, and he said that cannabis legislation has some problems, referencing the fact that villages can force a public vote on opt-out laws while towns have to wait for a petition to be filed. He said he thought that North Elba would end up with dispensaries eventually, and that he wanted to opt out to give the board time to educate the public with information about cannabis.
Town Supervisor Jay Rand said he’s made his thoughts on opting out clear — he’s explicitly stated he doesn’t want dispensaries and on-site consumption licensing in town — and he also thinks that the state’s cannabis legislation needs to be worked out more.
“Why would we jump into something that, if we opt out, it just gives us more time for a better decision,” Rand said. “Plus, you’re gonna have another board here in two weeks.”
Jason Leon and Rick Preston were elected to the North Elba Town Council in November to replace councilors Favro and Doty in January, when Doty will step up to replace Rand as supervisor. Tuesday was expected to be the last town council meeting for Rand and Favro.
Rand and Favro made and seconded a motion to opt out of allowing dispensaries, but further discussion halted the vote.
Doty asked members of the board if they thought they should accept the idea of a petition for the public to vote on the laws. Cummings said he thought that the board had done its due diligence as elected officials by researching the issues.
The board deliberated about the logistics of the permissive referendum process. Briggs told the board that if the laws go on the ballot and the public vote supported opting out, the board could still rescind the opt-out laws after the election. If the public vote supported rescinding the opt out laws, meaning the public voted to opt in and allow dispensaries and on-site consumption licenses, the board could not opt back out since Dec. 31 is the one-time opt-out deadline.
When asked if the board could opt in once a petition is filed but before the general election, Briggs said he wasn’t sure. Politi said she might consider opting out to get a few more months to consider zoning issues, but she wanted to know if the board’s hands would be tied by a filed petition. Briggs said he would research that point for the board, and the board resolved to hold a special meeting to vote on the laws at 10 a.m. on Friday.