Towns all over New York - and particularly Long Island - are choosing to “opt out” of allowing cannabis dispensaries and on-site consumption lounges within their borders.
As a resident of Long Beach, NY, I have witnessed the dialogue first hand - and while everyone has a right to their opinion- everyone does not have the right to make up “facts”. As a cannabis advocate, cannabis medical patient, and yes, a local PTA-mom, I can not sit idly by and listen to incorrect and ill-informed opinions being flung around like gospel. So here, is my attempt to debunk the myths and expose the flawed logic.
The Marihuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA) was signed into law on March 31, 2021 legalizing adult-use cannabis (also known as marijuana, or recreational marijuana) in New York State. It creates a high level framework for what legalization in New York will look like and, in regards to the "opt out issue” specifically states that cities, towns, and villages can opt out of permitting the licensing of adult-use marijuana dispensaries and/or on-site consumption lounges in their jurisdiction.
The default of the MRTA is that municipalities are automatically opted-in to the retail marijuana market; municipalities only have to take action if they plan to opt out. Those municipalities that do decide to opt out will not be eligible to receive any of the revenue generated from adult-use marijuana sales; MRTA establishes a 13 percent tax on adult-use marijuana sales, 4 percent of which is split between the county (25%) and municipalities (75%).
The MRTA also notes that municipalities that choose to opt out, can opt back in to the retail market.
The Opt Out Arguments
At its core, “opt-out” advocates are making two main arguments.
1- Opt out now, we can always opt back in.
2- Opting in is bad for our community and specifically our youth.
All of these arguments, however, are based on fear - not facts. Here is the truth of the matter.
The “let’s wait and see and potentially opt in later”, argument is a short- sighted follower attitude and really a cover for anti-cannabis folks stuck in Nancy Reagan’s racist War on Drugs Era. And - this weak excuse has a huge potential to backfire. The MRTA gives no clarity around the opt back in process or timeline. Opting in could take months, years. This opportunity for municipalities to service their citizens and create much needed tax revenue could be now or never in actuality because there is NO guarantee that once a municipality decides to opt back in - and there is a defined opt in process - there will be any licenses left to be awarded.
Instead of opting out, municipalities could and should have a robust conversation about the other ways they can protect citizens and control the rules and regulations around dispensaries and/or on-site consumption lounges, using, for example, zoning laws and other reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions.
Similarly, the "opting in is bad for our community" argument is flawed. Opting in actually protects our community and specifically our children in several ways.
First, it ensures that the cannabis available is safe. Many NYers who rely on cannabis as medicine are currently forced to buy cannabis underground because of a lack of access. Opening dispensaries and/or on-site consumption lounges around the state and ensuring they are accessible and plentiful will squeeze the underground and unregulated market. Regulated cannabis is far superior to un-regulated cannabis as underground weed is untested and not monitored. No one ever has died from cannabis from a dispensary. But cannabis laced with fentanyl sold underground - that is another story.
Secondly, not opting out will make cannabis access more difficult for under-age children to buy. Accessible and plentiful legal places to buy cannabis will drastically decrease the illicit market. Once the illicit market is no longer a lucrative business opportunity, it will shrivel and eventually cease to exist. And it is virtually impossible for an underage child to buy cannabis at a dispensary. Children are only getting cannabis from the illicit market. Anyone who equates the shopping experience at a dispensary to a 7/11 or a liquor store has NEVER visited a legal dispensary.
Lastly, and from my perspective most importantly, opting out will in no way keep cannabis out of our communities. The MRTA gives municipalities NO power to prohibit the legalization of marijuana in general - cannabis is legal in NY and regardless of opting out, residents can still possess and consume within the municipality. Prohibition via the opt out is ONLY limited to retail dispensaries and on-site consumption lounges - it does not apply to cultivation or manufacturing facilities, it does not prohibit delivery services from servicing these zones or residents from growing personal plants. Opting out only precludes the municipality from benefitting from increased jobs and tax revenue - it does not eliminate cannabis.
So, municipalities, instead of being fearful of cannabis coming into your town on your watch, I urge you to see this as an opportunity to lead and look out for the best interests of your local citizens. The opt out arguments are weak and intended to exploit the unfounded fears that cannabis and overall drug use will rise exponentially and your towns will become havens for derelicts and drug addicts.
Now, in closing, I am not saying we should throw caution to the wind and open a dispensary on every corner... we must be prudent and thoughtful every step of the way as the details emerge. But opting in now is the right next step for a safe future. At a minimum, let’s engage in an educated and thoughtful dialogue. I am happy to volunteer to accompany anyone who is interested to a dispensary in Massachusetts to discover first hand what we are actually talking about.