Hundreds of New York towns opt out of pot

Many communities not allowing marijuana sales are taking a wait-and-see approach.

A transaction at a marijuana dispensary in NYC.

A transaction at a marijuana dispensary in NYC. KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images

The new year has come and passed, washing away the weariness of 2021 and replacing it with a fresh coating of hope. And with it also passed the deadline for localities to opt out of recreational cannabis sales and consumption sites. Between pot’s legalization at the end of March last year and Dec. 31, villages, towns and cities had the opportunity to weigh their options and decide whether or not they would permit dispensaries and marijuana lounges in their communities. And in true town and village fashion, the decisions made by local councils and boards prove that old maxim that all politics is local.

A total of 1,521 municipalities around the state had the option to opt out before the deadline, from major metropolises like New York City to tiny villages like Weedsport. Of those, nearly 750 chose not to allow dispensaries within their borders, with about 100 more disallowing on-site consumption businesses, according to a database compiled by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. The decisions made by town councils and village boards across New York don’t impact the legality of cannabis itself within the municipalities’ borders, but preventing sales and locations akin to bars could greatly diminish the drug’s presence in a community, especially in isolated places or when surrounding neighborhoods took similar action.

The number of towns and villages that opted out is rather significant, but that’s likely due in part to the fact that while the law established a deadline to disallow sales, it allows local lawmakers to change their minds whenever they want in order to permit dispensaries and consumption lounges. The town of Rhinebeck in Dutchess County is one place where local lawmakers remain open to opting in later, at least for retail. As of now, the town board voted against both dispensaries and consumption lounges, but Supervisor Elizabeth Spinzia said her community doesn’t actually oppose retail sales. “We know we can control it with zoning,” Spinzia told City & State. “I think unanimously, we’re pro marijuana sales, we just wanted to see what this looks like.” She added that she and her fellow board members, however, don’t intend to revisit consumption sites because they don’t “fit with the characteristics of our rural communities.”

I think unanimously, we’re pro marijuana sales, we just wanted to see what this looks like.
– Rhinebeck Supervisor Elizabeth Spinzia

Spinzia’s position is not a unique one, according to Lizzie Kirshenbaum, the associate director of east coast government relations with the marijuana tech company Weedmaps. She had traveled to various parts of the state prior to the deadline to perform educational and advocacy outreach against opting out of sales and told City & State that she experienced a fair amount of hesitancy from local leaders and encountered many who wanted to wait before acting. “I think that’s actually not a great idea because there’s a real advantage to being a first mover,” Kirshenbaum said.

Kirshenbaum found this mindset particularly strong on Long Island, where she said there was more coordination among communities for large-scale opt-outs. That seemed to work out as the overwhelming majority of municipalities in Nassau and Suffolk Counties voted against both dispensaries and consumption lounges, even those with easy access to New York City where sales will proliferate. For example, the village of Mineola, the county seat of Nassau opted out in part because of the fact neighboring communities had. “I’m concerned about the congestion and the traffic that the only stores in this area would cause on our roads,” Mineola Mayor Scott Strauss said at a hearing back in October. The village, home to a major commuter rail station, is just 40 minutes away from Manhattan.

Such concerns did not seem to impact the town of Irondequoit. The town council of the affluent Rochester suburb decided to permit both dispensaries and bar-like consumption lounges. For Council Member Patrina Freeman, economics were a key factor in her decision to permit both in her town – municipalities that opt in benefit from sales tax revenue others without dispensaries don’t receive. Repairing the harms of cannabis prohibition on communities of color also influenced her decision. But while Freeman said she never considered rejecting dispensaries, she was initially hesitant about the consumption lounges. “To my, I guess, surprise, there was overwhelming support to have on-site consumption,” Freeman told City & State of responses in a public hearing. That feedback assuaged her initial concern and informed her final decision. “Both as a lawmaker and as a person of color, having the opportunity to decide things for myself, for my community, was a huge benefit.”

Both as a lawmaker and as a person of color, having the opportunity to decide things for myself, for my community, was a huge benefit.
– Irondequoit Council Member Patrina Freeman

In many instances, decisions seemed to revolve around hyperlocal issues more than they did on ideological grounds. Orchard Park, for example, voted to opt out of consumption lounges because the Buffalo suburb is not particularly walkable, meaning that people would need to drive to and from the locations. “There’s no breathalyzer for roadside testing for marijuana,” Council Member Conor Flynn said to City & State in explaining his concerns around road safety. “Down the line, I would like to see us opt back in to on-site consumption licenses, but we’re just going to wait until we have the technology for now.” Still, despite Flynn describing the town as a “conservative” community that expressed at least partially unfounded fears about opting into the cannabis businesses, the council nonetheless approved dispensaries. And interestingly, he added that the economic factor was not even a driving force behind his decision, but rather the neighborhood’s young people in favor of marijuana who would be there for decades to come.

In yet another example, the village of Middleburgh, to the west of Albany in Schoharie County, opted out of consumption lounges for the reason that Kirshenbaum encountered: Lawmakers wanted to see how other municipalities handled it first over the course of a year or two. Middleburgh Deputy Mayor Timothy Knight, the lone board member to vote in favor of on-site consumption, echoed the caution that Kirshenbaum offered about opting out in a wait-and-see approach. “By then, our hands might be tied by how many licenses are available, how oversaturated the product is, so on, so forth,” Knight told City & State.

But Knight, whose day job is reporting, expressed surprise at the overall ideological tenor of the debate in his and neighboring rural communities. “There are a lot of people in the ‘I do not want this in my town’ mindset,” Knight said. “But for whatever reason, it’s actually more muted than I thought it would be.” He opined that in some cases, fiscal conservatism in favor of more revenue outweighed people’s social conservatism that perhaps made marijuana legalization seem abhorrent. It goes to show the degree of nuance that likely went into the decisions of lawmakers from 1,500 municipalities and how much even a contentious topic like pot proves that ultimately, all politics truly is local.