Express Sessions: Plenty Of Questions Remain About Legalized Marijuana

Jay Schneiderman, Jim Larocca, Dave Falkowski, Bryan Polite and Mark Epley made up the panel for the latest Express Session. DANA SHAW

One might say that New York State spaced out when earlier this year it legalized the recreational use of marijuana for adults but failed to provide much in the way of regulatory guidance.

Now, local governments have been given until the end of the year to decide whether or not they want to allow retail pot businesses in their jurisdictions.

Five panelists at the Express Sessions event “Cannabis Is Coming,” held Thursday, November 18, at Union Sushi & Steak in Southampton Village, agreed that much work needs to be done — from enacting regulations for where to place retail marijuana businesses, to protecting teens from exposure to the drug — before the East End will be ready for the arrival of marijuana dispensaries and smoking lounges.

Watch video of the forum here:

The state’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act allows adults 21 and older to possess up to three ounces of marijuana in public and keep up to five pounds at home. The drug can be smoked anywhere tobacco smoking is currently allowed.

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said the state often issues unfunded mandates, requiring local governments to pick up the costs of new programs, but in this case, “they actually provide a little incentive in the form of a sales tax.”

A total of 13 percent sales tax would be collected on cannabis products, according to Schneiderman, with 1 percent going to Suffolk County, 3 percent split between the town and villages that allow sales, and another 9 percent going to the state.

He estimated that Southampton could generate between $1 million and $2 million per year from such taxes and said he anticipated that the Town Board would opt in, if for no other reason than to share in that windfall.

He pointed out that the Shinnecock Nation has already made preliminary plans to move forward with pot sales, so the drug will be readily available to town residents anyway.

“We are discussing what the zoning might look like, how we are going to control it, what are the public safety issues,” he said.

Mayor Jim Larocca of Sag Harbor said the village had yet to decide what to do. “I wish the state had done things differently, because it is confusing to many people,” he said of the legalization process.

Sag Harbor straddles Southampton and East Hampton towns, and Larocca said he would like to see uniform policies enacted across the region. “I would like us to not create a crazy quilt of jurisdictional differences,” he said.

Bryan Polite, the chairman of the Shinnecock Council of Trustees, said the tribe was also working to develop a framework of regulations for its own cannabis initiatives.

“We’re trying our best to take as much time as necessary but knowing at the same time the genie is out of the bottle, and we have to get regulations in place,” he said.

When those regulations are put in place, David Falkowski, the owner of Open Minded Organics in Bridgehampton, said it was important that local, small businesses be favored over corporate interests. He said a goal of the legalization effort was to send “a strong message of social equity” by extending opportunities to minority communities and make up for strict drug possession laws that victimized many people of color.

“As much as people are drooling at opportunities to expand their portfolios, to go public, capitalize, collect and spend taxes, we need to remember there are many people who for a long time have been incarcerated, persecuted and shamed,” he said. “The goal here is to legitimize their existence and undo a lot of the wrongs and these injustices.

“This is the people’s plant,” he added. “When you take the people away from the plant, the plant becomes toxic.”

But Mark Epley, the president and CEO of the Seafield Center, a treatment facility in Westhampton Beach, said for about 10 percent of the population, the plant is already toxic, because they are predisposed to substance abuse.

“I’m in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana. I’m also in favor of the medical use of marijuana,” he said. “I’m not in favor of the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana.”

Epley drew some catcalls from members of the audience when he said that 100 percent of the people Seafield treats for opioid addiction used marijuana as a “gateway” drug.

“I’m not here to debate whether a 50-year-old guy wants to smoke marijuana at the beach,” Epley said. “I do have a problem with the impact it’s having on the youth of our country.”

Ten percent of the population battles some form of addiction, and that jumps to 17 percent for teens who have smoked pot, Epley said. With some in the audience chuckling or offering dismissive comments, he added, “You want to laugh? You laugh until it’s your kid you are burying.”

Audience member Eboni Marshall, an Air Force veteran and critical care nurse, said Epley’s concerns about marijuana being a gateway drug were overstated. She said, as a nurse, she had never treated anyone for a marijuana overdose, but added that alcohol poses all sorts of life-threatening health problems despite its legality.

She said it was lame “to constantly be blaming marijuana for other problems people have,” adding, “You can’t tell me you smoked a joint and then decided you wanted to do heroin.”

Kym Laube, the director of Human Understanding and Growth Services, or HUGS, which tries to help reduce risky behavior among young people, said it was important that the community offer programs that encourage positive mental health for its youth.

While steps have been made to control alcohol abuse, she said marijuana use among teens continued to climb, and that it was important that they avoid any and all drugs because of the impact they have on young, developing brains.

“We know using substances is often a way to not have to deal with pain and emotion,” she said. “We have to do better at teaching our kids emotional intelligence and positive coping mechanisms, and we have to mirror our behavior to them.”

Falkowski said that it was important to focus on the future.

“Let’s stop debating something that is done — which is the legalization of marijuana in New York State, for better or worse — and let’s start talking about these tax revenues and earmarking them” for programs that can help combat social problems, he said.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act “is the best New York State could do,” he added, saying one of its many goals “to destroy the black market to remove the drug dealer who don’t check for ID, to remove the drug dealers who choose to make their cocaine stronger by adding fentanyl to it.”

Schneiderman said the town would likely steer proceeds toward drug-abuse prevention programs and other efforts to respond to some of the “social concerns” legalization is spurring. Polite added that governments would have to make sure dispensaries follow the letter of the law in who they sell marijuana to.

Many local governments have already opted to opt out of allowing pot to be sold, but even though they can reverse that decision later, Schneiderman said they may be short-sighted because the state has said it will issue a limited number of licenses, perhaps no more than three per state assembly district.

“It doesn’t mean if Southampton is in, you are going to see dispensaries or lounges everywhere,” he said.

Schneiderman added that the town has to decide whether it will allow dispensaries to be placed in business districts or whether they should be moved to industrial zones to keep them away from the public.

Falkowski said he had visited dispensaries in other states and found them to be secure and attractive, describing them as looking more like Apple stores than head shops.

Polite noted that marijuana remains a federally prohibited drug. “That’s the elephant in the room for us,” he said, given the tribe’s status as a sovereign nation.

And villages like Sag Harbor still have figure out if they will expand “no smoking zones” and take other steps to control where marijuana can be consumed, Larocca said.

That would be an important consideration, added Epley, who said the state will not allow cigarette smoking at a treatment facility, but would conceivably allow someone to use marijuana “in a treatment program where people are battling addiction.”