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Legalized marijuana is coming, but will local towns opt out?

As Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to legalize recreational marijuana last month, towns and villages across the state face a year-end deadline to decide whether to allow dispensaries within their borders or to opt out.

“This is a major public policy decision,” Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said Monday.

He joined Suffolk County’s other town supervisors for a virtual conference last week, where they listened to both advocates and opponents on the issue.

The meeting was organized by Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer, who had been calling for all of Long Island to opt out.

But a regional opt-out may not materialize after all.

“There were no conclusions made or any coordinated plan of action considered,” Mr. Russell said.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said Tuesday that it was too early for her to decide one way or the other. “I need to take a hard look,” she said. “The Town Board and the public all need to decide collectively if we are going to opt out.”

Ms. Aguiar, who previously worked in law enforcement, shares many concerns echoed by Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio (R-Riverhead) and state Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), who both voted against the measure.

Opponents of legalization have cited health and safety concerns, describing marijuana as a “gateway drug” that could also lead to an increase in people driving under the influence.

Under the new law, it will remain illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana. But with no readily accessible or reliable way to test for the substance, the new law will also require the state Department of Health to explore new devices that could detect recent marijuana use.

The newly approved bill legalizes the possession, sale and cultivation of marijuana by adults 21 years and older.

Municipalities have until Dec. 31 to adopt local laws if they wish to disallow dispensaries and public consumption sites, but they can’t stop residents from consuming or growing the plant. The legislation also allows municipalities that opt out initially to reverse their decisions in the future.

State officials have projected that marijuana could generate thousands of new jobs and $350 million in tax revenue. It’s poised to be taxed at 13%, with 9% allocated to the state, 3% to towns and 1% to counties. Towns that have opted out would miss out on their share of tax proceeds generated by marijuana sales.

“I don’t think it would be beneficial to us,” Greenport Village Mayor George Hubbard Jr. said in an interview Monday. 

Describing Greenport as a family-oriented community, he said he has a hard time picturing marijuana bars opening in the village. “I don’t see how that fits in. I don’t know if that’s what we want downtown Greenport to be.”

While he hasn’t discussed the issue with the Village Board, the mayor said he’s eager to see what other East End municipalities decide to do.

Mr. Russell said any decision by the town should include “ample comment” from the public.

“My personal view is that policies of this magnitude should be decided by the voters in a public referendum,” Mr. Russell said, noting that the current legislation doesn’t provide for that.

Despite her personal reluctance regarding legalization, Ms. Aguiar said she’s on an exploratory mission.

“Everything is on the table for consideration,” she said, adding that decisions made by nearby areas will also be an important factor.

The Shinnecock Nation has already announced plans to begin cultivating and selling marijuana on their Southampton reservation.

“If we do eventually elect to move forward with the new legislation, I will strongly advocate for dispensaries and on-site consumption be at least 1,000 feet from government facilities, schools, playground locations where children are present, churches, hospitals, senior locations and other sensitive areas,” Ms. Aguiar said.

What else to know

• Under the new law, adults 21 years and older can possess up to three ounces of marijuana or up to 24 grams of cannabis in concentrated forms, like oil.

• Those previously convicted on low-level marijuana charges will have their records expunged.

• At home, adults are allowed to store up to five pounds of cannabis but are required by law to take “reasonable steps” to ensure it’s stored securely and not accessible to minors.

• Home cultivation will also be allowed 18 months after the first adult-use dispensary opens. Adult users will be allowed up to six plants at home and a maximum of 12 plants will be allowed in one household. Plants can be cultivated indoors or outdoors.

• Dispensaries are unlikely to open before 2022. The state created a new Office of Cannabis Management (cannabis.ny.gov) that will oversee the licensing process for growers, processors, retailers and other areas of the industry.