TOWN OF AMSTERDAM — Plans to let voters decide if the town should opt-out of marijuana sales in November are off the table after officials learned the issue cannot be put to referendum under state law.
Supervisor Thomas DiMezza reported to the Town Board on Wednesday that a consultation with the Association of Towns over the planned public vote on whether to allow marijuana sales in the town revealed that sending the issue directly to a referendum is not permitted under state law. Only items that are subject to mandatory referendum may be handled that way.
Any local laws passed by municipalities opting out of retail cannabis sales are subject to permissive referendum under state home rule law. (Meaning, voters may petition adopted local laws in an attempt at triggering a public referendum to decide whether or not to approve the legislation.)
The state law legalizing recreational marijuana allows municipalities until Dec. 31 to opt-out of allowing retail cannabis sales within their boundaries by adopting a local law. The state is currently developing regulations for retail sales that are expected to take about 18 months to put in place.
The Town Board in April was set to consider a local law officially opting out of marijuana sales, but the legislation was defeated without ever coming to a formal vote after DiMezza pulled his sponsorship of the item and no other board members moved the local law.
The board instead voted in May to send the issue to referendum for voters to decide in November at DiMezza’s recommendation due to the wide range of reactions from residents both in support and opposition to the town’s proposed action to opt-out of marijuana sales.
Although an official vote cannot be conducted, DiMezza on Wednesday said the town could send out an unofficial survey by mail to allow residents to weigh in. That solution was reportedly suggested by the Association of Towns.
DiMezza read from a draft letter explaining the state recreational marijuana law that would be mailed to registered voters in the town with a one-page survey asking if the town should opt-in or opt-out of cannabis sales. Participants would need to mail the survey back in a self-addressed stamped envelope.
The survey was presented to the board for the first time during the meeting. None of the officials objected to the solution, although Town Board member Mary Maines clarified that it would ultimately be up to the board to review the survey results and decide whether to take action.
DiMezza confirmed that the town could subsequently enact a local law to opt-out of retail pot sales or abstain from any action to allow retail sales within the town in accordance with state licensing and regulatory requirements.
There is currently no timeline for when town residents can expect the surveys to arrive in their mailboxes. Following the meeting, DiMezza expressed interest in hiring a college intern or part-time staffer for the summer to handle the mailing and to tabulate the results citing limited staffing in the Town Clerk’s Office.
“We only have two employees in that office and the office is pretty busy,” DiMezza said. “I’m looking to do it as soon as possible so we can get it back and collate it and see what those results are.”
Based on the supervisor’s plan, surveys would be sent only to registered voters in the town. This would effectively allow the same individuals who could have participated in a referendum to share their views on the issue.
“Those are the ones that make decisions,” DiMezza said.
There were 4,018 registered voters in the town as of enrollment data from the state Board of Elections. Approximately 5,997 residents live in the town, according to 2019 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
DiMezza went on to suggest that conducting a survey by mail would attract participation from more individuals than a public vote.
“This way we’re going to hit every voter because we have a list from the election office of every voter in the town,” he said.
Maines, who opposes opting out of retail marijuana sales, expressed uncertainty over the survey option and its legality.
“It caught me off guard seeing this today and I have to do a little more research on it,” she said.
Limiting the survey to only registered voters, Maines said, would likely leave out supporters of recreational marijuana sales.
“Some individuals won’t be represented,” Maines said.
Conducting the survey would still leave the board in its current position of having to decide whether to take action, she added.