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Local leaders urge caution in marijuana legalization

Local leaders urge caution in marijuana legalization

Proposed law allows counties, cities to ban pot shops
Local leaders urge caution in marijuana legalization
A medical marijuana plant is pictured.
Photographer: Gazette file photo

CLIFTON PARK -- Local leaders said it is too early to tell whether an opt-out provision for legalized recreational marijuana would be worth pursuing. 

In his State of the State address one week ago, Cuomo laid out his vision for legalization of recreational marijuana by adult New Yorkers, a plan that would allow counties and large cities to ban recreational pot shops within their borders.

The proposal has yet to be voted on by the Legislature, but local supervisors and other elected officials say they don't yet know enough about the overall plan to make decisions about opting out.

"If this were to proceed forward and there were an opt-out option, it would be something that the board would need to look at the pros and cons of," said Kevin Tollisen, Halfmoon town supervisor and chairman of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors.

Marijuana, Tollisen pointed out, is already in the area, anyway.

In November, the town's Planning Board approved a medical marijuana dispensary. Fiorello Pharmaceuticals, a New York City-based medical marijuana company, recently opened that facility at 1675 Route 9.

The shop, called FP Wellness, operates out of a 1,917-square-foot storefront, according to project plans. It was previously home to Among Angels, a psychic and tarot-card-reading business.

FP Wellness handles the sale, storage, packaging and labeling of medical cannabis and related products containing cannabis, as permitted by New York state. It has an appointment-only policy.

The planning board's approval of the shop came after the town familiarized itself with medical marijuana regulations, and recreational marijuana would be handled the same way, Tollisen said.

Gary Hughes, majority leader of the Schenectady County Legislature, expressed concerns that opting out of legal recreational marijuana shops would result in a confusing patchwork of counties with different recreational marijuana policies.

If recreational marijuana is banned in one county, he said, consumers could easily cross the border to another county or municipality where the sale is permitted.

"I have a hard time figuring out how it would work in the Capital Region. Personally, I think it might cause more problems than it would alleviate," he said.

More pressing matters for the Legislature, Hughes said, are such issues as how legal pot would affect local law enforcement patrols and whether taxpayers or the state would foot the bill for that enforcement.

"What are the other health implications? What would this do to our ability to provide services? There's a lot for counties to think about," he said. A decision on whether to allow pot shops could come later, he said.

Clifton Park Town Supervisor Phil Barrett said he does not expect towns to be given the opportunity to ban recreational marijuana stores -- just larger cities and counties.

He also said it was too early to consider an opt-out option. Instead, he warned that legalization could lead to an expansion of drug use and urged lawmakers to use caution while considering legalization.

While Cuomo released some details about his plan, including an estimate that legal pot sales will bring an additional $300 million tax revenue to New York, Barrett said his priority is to wait to see the finer details, including what a recreational marijuana retail store would look like and where that tax revenue would be used.  

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he said of the opt-out issue. "At this point, we just wait to see what the plan is."

Clifton Park has also prepared for the impact of legal recreational marijuana. In 2015, it adjusted zoning laws to determine the most advantageous locations for medical marijuana dispensaries. During that process, Barrett said he knew it was a matter of when, not if, recreational marijuana was also legalized. 

"We weren't concerned with the medical aspect. We were more concerned with the future, and how a recreational marijuana retail store would evolve. Unfortunately, it was only a matter of time," he said.

Clifton Park Planning Director John Scavo said areas directly adjacent to I-87 were designated as places where medical dispensaries could operate.

Specifically, spots directly north and south of the intersection of routes 9 and 146 were tapped as close enough to the highway for people to stop in, get what they need and get back on the highway, if traveling from a neighboring municipality.

Scavo said the town would have to wait and see what laws are actually passed by the state Legislature to predict how the town would approach the planning process for a recreational dispensary. 

"On the recreational end, I'm not sure what the restrictions would be," Scavo said.

Barrett was also skeptical of the tax revenue promise and called it a "rosy" prediction. Total legalization would come with an increase in drug-related crimes, such as driving while under the influence, Barrett said, and taxpayers would foot the bill for that.

"We know that it will bring more societal problems," he said. "The local taxpayer is the one that ends up paying the big expenses. We're just sitting here watching it happen. We know what is going to occur. The question is, are we going to do anything about it?"

Barrett would also like to see the Legislature take input from constituents into consideration while working toward a deal for legalization.

"Local taxpayers and families should have a voice in this process. I want to be part of the solution. I don't want to just be complaining on the sidelines," he said.

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