DELMAR — Today, someone in New York can light up a joint as openly as pulling out a Marlboro; the challenge is finding a licensed dispensary to buy that marijuana.
Albany opened the doors to recreational marijuana use, and a new commercial market to support it. But, state legislators also allowed each municipality to decide for themselves if they want to permit dispensaries or on-site consumption lounges in their towns, or disallow them altogether.
Bethlehem just started that discussion on Wednesday, Sept. 22, and it has until the end of the year to make a decision — and should it decide to opt in, there is no backing out.
When then-Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act in March, it represented a dynamic shift in Albany, where it previously passed the strongest laws against selling and possessing marijuana through the Rockefeller Laws nearly a half century ago.
Named after then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the Rockefeller drug laws defined heavy penalties for selling or possessing drugs, slapping a maximum of 25 years to life in prison after they were passed in 1973.
Someone carrying four ounces of heroin, morphine or cocaine faced a major felony. Marijuana, which was defined as a narcotic up until recently, was included in that litany of drugs. The laws also established a minimum sentence of 15 years to life, taking judicial discretion away from the courts. Opponents criticised the laws as being so heavy-handed they could not be enforced; or worse, targeted Black people more so than White.
The legalization of adult-use cannabis is an enormous public policy shift so the regulatory framework is expected to take time to before it is fully developed. The Office of Cannabis Management will need to draft and issue regulations to implement the law in order for adult-use sales to begin. However, while there are currently no stores open to purchase adult-use cannabis, the possession and use of cannabis for adults 21 years of age and older in accordance with the MRTA, is now legal.
As municipalities consider their position, tobacco-free advocates have weighed in by trying to convince them to revisit tobacco and vaping regulations within their jurisdiction. In light of MRTA, Theresa Zubretsky told the Town Board it needs to remain aware of the dangers caused by vaping products.
MRTA included an expansion of the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act to prohibit smoking or vaping cannabis in locations where smoking and vaping tobacco is prohibited. Those locations include all playgrounds between sunrise and sunset when one or more children under age 12 are present. However, the law does not prohibit smoking tobacco or cannabis in other recreational areas, like parks and beaches or municipal properties.
Zubretsky, who is social coordinator for Capital District Tobacco-Free Coalition, said legalized use of marijuana is drawing away from tobacco-free efforts.
“The up-shot of all that is restricting the use of all products that can be vaped, and all products that can be smoked, is clearly the path that best supports the kinds of advances in public health we’ve made with tobacco-free policies,” Zubretsky said.
Like a cigar shop
Town Planning Director Robert Leslie said he would anticipate new dispensaries or lounges would want to seek storefronts in the town’s established commercial areas — Delaware Avenue, Route 9W or New Scotland Road. Prospective locations are already limited by their relative distance from schools and churches. For example, lounges would be at least 500 feet away from school grounds and 200 feet away from a house of worship. MRTA allows towns to extend those thresholds even farther.
“We can implement location regulation, hours of operation, even aesthetics,” Leslie said. “It should be noted, though, the regulation should not render the operation of the dispensary unreasonably practical.”
Town Board members sought clarity on the state’s definition of an on-site consumption facility, to which Leslie compared it to a cigar shop to which a person could buy and smoke a cigar.
“However, there is a behavioral change,” said board member Joyce Becker. “Tobacco is a drug. There’s a drug involved. But I have trouble with on-site consumption. Are people impaired when they leave there? I guess that’s a concern for police.”
Leslie later used the neighborhood bar analogy to describe its use. Where a customer could buy alcohol, sit down and consume the product. He then likened a dispensary to a beverage center where consumers can purchase the product to use at home.
Municipalities weighing the benefits to allow dispensaries and lounges will consider the taxable income it promises. A statewide 9 percent tax would be charged on all sales. Another 4 percent would be levied locally, with 3 percent going to the town in which the business resides while the other 1 percent goes to the respective county.
Unlike the tobacco license process Bethlehem introduced last year, the state will not allow for locally issued licenses. A new Office of Cannabis Management will issue licenses and develop regulations.
Colonie and Ballston Spa have each opted to allow for dispensaries, but chose to go without on-site consumption lounges. Whether Bethlehem decides to follow in similar fashion will happen after the Town Board listens to the public before passing a local law anticipated for December.