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Riverhead residents discuss pros and cons of marijuana as Town Board weighs opt out decision

The Riverhead Town Board heard both sides of the marijuana argument during a public hearing Tuesday. 

The state legalized marijuana on March 31 and left towns and municipalities with the decision of whether to opt-out on allowing the retail sale of marijuana and the on-site consumption of it. Opting out also means losing out on a 3% portion of the revenue the state makes on marijuana. 

The state has imposed a Dec. 31 deadline to opt out, and if the town decides to do so, it must hold a public hearing, which was done Tuesday.

The decision must be subject to a permissive referendum. That means residents opposed to opting out can force a referendum through a petition.

New York is one of 16 states, plus the District of Columbia, to legalize marijuana. 

In New York, an individual 21 years old or older can now possess three ounces of marijuana. According to deputy town attorney Anne Marie Prudenti, equivalent to 50 to 75 joints. 

Someone age 21 or over can smoke marijuana anywhere where you can now smoke cigarettes. A person age 21 or over also is allowed to cultivate up to six marijuana plants, or two adults living in the same household can grow up to 12 marijuana plants, Ms. Prudenti said. 

The town can decide through zoning what areas marijuana can be consumed.  

Here’s some of the opinions voiced at Tuesday’s hearing: 

• “I’m rooting for Riverhead to be the best Riverhead that we can be, and that’s why I am for opting out of the marijuana cafes and dispensaries,” said Cheryl Hewkin of Baiting Hollow.

She said that after speaking with people from towns that have allowed marijuana cafes and retail in other states, she concluded, “This would do more harm than good.”

It would force others to breath in the second-hand marijuana smoke in public places.

• Troy Smit, a proponent of retail sales and on-site consumption, said by opting out of those uses, the town would just be opting out of the safeguards put in the law. 

And he projected that the law will generate “a substantial amount of revenue” for the town. 

• Robert Shilling, a retired teacher from Riverhead, supported the adult use of cannabis in Riverhead. “I think it’s way past time we normalize the substance and turn it into a market we can all benefit from.”

He added, “when we push things underground and make them illegal or harder to do, things become more dangerous.”

By bringing the industry above board, it will be safer and better for all those involved, he said.

Mr. Shilling said that opting in will give the town power to regulate what goes on, he said. Legalizing it also ensures it is safe and not laced with another drug, he said.

Prior Coverage

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• Ngiste Abebe, the vice president of Public Policy at Columbia Care, which has had a medical marijuana dispensary in Riverhead for the past five years, said Columbia is interested in the option of co-locating adult use with medical use of marijuana.

“We have found in other states where we are able to co-locate adult use and medical, it dramatically reduces the cost for patients,” said Ms. Abede.

Reducing costs is important because medical marijuana is not covered by insurance, she said. 

She said Columbia Care supports the adult use of marijuana. 

Research shows that 60 to 74% of adult use customers are coming in for health or wellness reasons. Insomnia, anxiety and pain and the top three reasons, she said.

• “Why would we want this in our community?” asked Tracy Stark-James of Aquebogue. “What is the benefit to our citizens to allow on-site use and the retail sale of marijuana?”

The proposal will increase the availability of marijuana and will likely negatively impact quality of life, she said. 

The proposal is generated by money, she said. 

There are scientific studies that show marijuana is harmful to children. The second hand smoke from marijuana will “impede our quality of life,” she said. 

There is no test to determine if marijuana is in a person’s system that way alcohol can be tested, Ms. Stark-James said. 

She urged the town to opt out.

• Mark Haubner of Aquebogue said there is no roadside sobriety test for marijuana. And he said the amount of money the town would generate from the marijuana sales is unknown and depends on a lot of factors. 

“We’d better not bet the farm on any money coming in from this,” he said.

• John McAuliff of Riverhead suggested the board vote to opt out so that a public referendum can be held to get the public’s opinion. 

• Mike Foley of Reeves Park said marijuana doesn’t cause people to drive the wrong way on the Long Island Expressway the way alcohol or Oxycodone does. 

He supports retail sale and on-site consumption of marijuana and feels it can make downtown Riverhead a destination. 

He said he’s been smoking marijuana for 50 years.

“I did it at home. I never did it driving and would not do it (driving) now,” he said. 

The public hearing was the second chance for the public to weigh in on the issue.

The Town Board recently conducted a marijuana survey in which 1,408 people responded to eight questions. Of those, 86% claimed to be Riverhead residents and 13% were Riverhead business owners.

The results showed 73% supported marijuana sales in Riverhead and 61% supported allowing public marijuana consumption in cafes or lounges.

If the Town Board choses to opt-out, it must wait 45 days for the permissive referendum and to see if there is a petition challenging the move. From there, it would have 60 days prior to election day to get a ballot proposition filed with the Board of Election.

If the Town Board choses to opt out, it would have to vote to do on by the July 7 Town Board meeting, according to Ms. Prudenti.