Editorial: In six years, a Town Board shifts dramatically on marijuana view

When New York State approved a medical marijuana dispensary in Riverhead in August 2015, the Town Board’s immediate response was to consider enacting a moratorium that would effectively serve as a roadblock.

Even before the state’s approval, the potential facility, slated for East Main Street, faced immense scrutiny. There were concerns about its location and whether it was too close to schools. A former councilman worried about increased traffic. Many worried about an increase in crime and whether the facility would be a consistent target for criminals. Others said there wouldn’t be enough tax revenue to offset the dispensary’s presence. 

The moratorium rightfully never gained traction and the facility at 1333 East Main St. opened its doors in January 2016, providing a new care option care for patients with a variety of serious illnesses like cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

It would have been difficult at the time to envision that the Town Board would ever embrace recreational marijuana. Yet here we are.

Councilman Tim Hubbard, first elected in 2015, just after the dispensary approval, cast his vote last week against opting out of the sliver of the state legislation that’s been left to local governments. After doing so, he reflected on much of the hysteria that surrounded discussion of the original dispensary..

“When I go back to several years ago, before I got on the board, I sat out in the audience and there was the controversy of medical marijuana coming to Riverhead and how God awful it was going to be,” he said. “There were all kinds of thoughts. It was crazy. It was all over the place. Medical marijuana has been the most benign and quiet business in the town.”

It’s an entirely different Town Board from 2015, but it was still surprising to see the direction the members chose to go last week in a 3-2 vote against opting out of retail sales and on-site public consumption. When the marijuana discussion began after the state law was approved, some board members noted that the Shinnecock Reservation was moving ahead on recreational marijuana and Southampton Town seemingly would follow. But it wasn’t Southampton that took the plunge first with a vote, but rather Riverhead.

While most East End towns, excluding Shelter Island, have taken a relatively passive approach to the marijuana discussion, Riverhead tackled it head-on, however messy it may have been along the way, particularly for a Republican-majority board. The board deserves credit for quickly seeking a wide variety of public feedback and setting up a vote in time for the permissive referendum process to move forward if the decision was to opt out.

Councilman Frank Beyrodt admitted he didn’t necessarily agree with the state legislation, but that was beyond his control and he supported what he believed was the majority opinion of town residents to not opt out. Councilwoman Catherine Kent echoed that by saying she trusted the results of the town survey.

Regardless of the Town Board vote, recreational marijuana is here in New York. Just as medical marijuana didn’t develop into a doomsday scenario, neither will its recreational use. 

The Town Board’s next move is to enact local regulations to help control where retails sales can take place. The idea that downtown Riverhead will become shrouded in a dense fog of marijuana smoke is misguided. Cigarette smoking is not permitted in public areas, and the same will hold for marijuana. Will public lounges where it can be smoked suddenly line the streets of Riverhead? Sure, someone will give it a shot, but it’s important to note that alcohol will not be permitted at those facilities, so they’re unlikely to turn into major party scenes that suddenly displace bars.

Faced with a controversial decision, the Town Board got this one right.