Photo: Adobe Stock

Opinions were split on whether the Riverhead Town Board should opt the town out of allowing marijuana dispensaries and lounges in town, during a nearly two-hour hearing at town hall last night.

Advocates of opting out worried that allowing marijuana sales and lounges would make the town less attractive to families, have a negative effect on the community’s youth and people against opting out said the town would lose revenue and economic development opportunities and decrease the town board’s regulatory power over the drug.

The hearing was called after the town board questioned the accuracy of an anonymous town-issued online survey showing 73% of the 1,408 respondents favored retail marijuana sales in the town and 61% favored cafes or lounges for use.

Deputy Town Attorney Ann Marie Prudenti urged that time was of the essence if the board wants to pass the local law to opt out. The marijuana law is subject to a referendum by petition and state law allows voters 45 days to file a petition forcing a vote on the opt-out law. If the petition is valid, a referendum for the decision would be put on the ballot in November, and the ballot proposition must be filed with the board of elections 60 days before Election Day, Prudenti said. If the vote happens, the town wants it on the ballot in November, as a special election afterward would be too costly, she said. The opt-out law would not take effect until either 45 days passes after it’s adopted or, if a petition forces a referendum, a majority of voters supports opting out.

If the town board wants to opt out, they can only do it until the end of the year. However, they can rescind the opt-out law after Dec, 31. The vote on the opt-out law would take place at the next town board meeting on July 7. The hearing record is open for written comment until June 25 at 4:30 p.m.

Under the marijuana legislation adopted in March, local towns and villages have no control over whether people can use or grow marijuana in their jurisdictions. They can only opt out or, if they don’t opt out, they can regulate the locations of dispensaries and lounges and their time of operation. If retail sales are not banned by opt-out legislation, the town would collect a 3% sales tax on every retail sale within the town.

Cheryl Hewkin of Baiting Hollow spoke in favor of opting out: ‘…do we really want our children riding on the carousel while they’re breathing pot smoke? I don’t think so. How healthy is that?” Photo: Alek Lewis

Residents make the case for opting out

Those advocating for opting out said that the damage the town’s air quality, and that setting up dispensaries and cafes would make downtown more friendly to pot smokers and less friendly to families.

“And this at a time when we’re excitedly in the process of creating this wonderful family-friendly outdoor gathering space on a Riverfront do we really want our children riding on the carousel while they’re breathing pot smoke? I don’t think so. How healthy is that,” said Cheryl Hewkin.

“I remember smoke-filled restaurants and offices and airports and planes and trains,” she said. And I thank God that we changed the world from then to now. And it makes no sense for us to go backwards into a soot of smoke-filled world again.”

A vocal advocate for opting out of the meeting was Tracy Stark-James, who is currently the executive director of the Industrial Development Agency.

“As I stand here today, I currently oppose the [marijuana law] and allowing onsite use and retail sales, because it will increase the availability and accessibility, and could potentially and most likely, negatively impact our quality of life,” she said.

During the fiery testimony, she condemned the tax revenue that the town would gain as a reason for not opting out as greedy.

Stark-James also said that allowing marijuana sales in the town would make it more accessible to teens and children, of which marijuana has been linked to an increased risk of long-lasting brain effects like depression, anxiety and psychosis.

She also said that more accessibility means an increased risk to drug addicts in the community. “Riverhead has so many addicted souls who fight the battle daily,”’ she said. “Are we going to lend them a hand up or tempt them like a diabetic in a candy store?”

Stark-James also brought up the effects that second-hand smoking could have on the community. Currently, there isn’t much research on second-hand marijuana smoke, though smoke does hold THC, which is the chemical responsible for marijuana’s psychological effects. Studies do show the possibility for a “contact high,” but only when exposed for long periods of time in an unventilated room. Marijuana smoke also has many of the same cancer-causing substances as tobacco smoke.

People for opting out also said that the lack of a sobriety test for impaired drivers could cause a risk to safety. Mark Haubner of Aquebogue said a sobriety test would make him feel more comfortable about the law. He was also skeptical about how much the tax revenue retail sales might actually help the financials of the town.

Community Development Director Dawn Thomas said she opposed the expansion of any intoxicating substances in the town. She was also skeptical about the promised revenue gains from the state, citing the promises made from other revenue gains like the lottery, whose advertising slogan when first introduced was “Your Chance of a Lifetime to Help Education.”

“I think while we may get funding from this, we don’t yet understand what the potential costs would be,” Thomas said. “So whatever funding we would get would really have to be measured against what the potential impacts and costs would be to the community.”

People for opting out also also said that the town should opt out now and repeal the local law in the future if the law proves a benefit to surrounding towns. If the town does not opt out now, they won’t have the opportunity again.

“This is one of those things like Pandora’s box,” Hewkin said. “If you do allow it, once you do it, it will be next to impossible to ever reverse.”

Mike Foley of Riverhead spoke against opting out: ‘I believe we can make downtown Riverhead a yea-round destination place… for people enjoying adult indulgences and spending their money all over this town.’ Photo: Alek Lewis

Residents make the case for not opting out

Those opposing the measure said that opting out would mean the loss of the town’s power to regulate, a loss of the opportunity to compete with surrounding towns and the loss of tax revenue. The new law establishes a 13% sales tax on marijuana retail sales and consumption, the town would lose 3% of that revenue if they opt out.

“When we push things underground and make them illegal or harder to do, things become more dangerous,” said Robert Shilling, a retired teacher from the school district. “And I think that the more we can sanitize the industry by bringing it above board I do believe it will be safer and better for all those involved, for sellers, buyers and also for our local police, I believe whose job is hard enough.”

He said that the ability to regulate would allow the town to make areas like downtown pot free and allow people to be more informed about the drug’s health effects. He said it will also help the local economy, create jobs and allow people to act more responsibly when consuming cannabis.

“Do we want to drive our citizens out of town to indulge in these practices?” Shilling asked. “I believe the lounges are really just kind of like cannabis bars, regular bars, where people will go together and support local businesses. But if we drive our citizens out of town to indulge, now they have to worry about getting home.”

Mike Foley of Reeves Park, who is both a recreational and a medical marijuana user, emphasized the medical benefits and said that the town would be making a mistake by opting out.

“But what we’re talking about here of opting out is basically we’re gonna give everybody else a chance to get ahead of us,” Foley said. “We’re gonna see what everybody else does with this and then we’re going to decide, ‘yeah, this is a good deal, let’s go in.’ It’ll be too late.”

Unlike Shilling and those in favor of the opt out, Foley believes that the town has been given an opportunity to coincide with downtown revitalizations with the integrations of marijuana dispensaries and lounges to increase the area’s economic growth.

“What are we going to do as a town to reimagine the future? That’s what you guys are up there for, to make that determination,” he said to the Town Board. “If you make the right one, I believe we can make downtown Riverhead a year-round destination place, not for zombies walking around, but for people enjoying adult indulgences and spending their money all over this town.”

“If you want to make it help this town, it’s got to be where you want the growth to be,” Foley said.

Also appearing at the hearing were employees of Columbia Care, who run the dispensary on East Main Street. Ngiste Abebe, vice president of public policy at Columbia Care and the president of the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association, said that the company is interested in making the dispensary into a co-location for recreational use if the town doesn’t opt out.

“We have found in other states where we are able to co-locate adult use and medical, it dramatically reduces the cost for patients,” Abebe said.

“We’ve also found that in the states where we’re allowed to co-locate medical and adult use, we can better serve patients who don’t even know yet that they could be participating,” she said, citing that more than 60% of adult use patients are using for health or wellness reasons like insomnia, anxiety and pain. The co-location can also give users access to medical professionals in case they want to become a medical patient.

“The reality is, though: cannabis is here,” Abebe said. “Adult-use cannabis is already a multi billion dollar industry in the state of New York. The question is not whether or not we have cannabis in this town, it is — to the point many others have made — are we going to regulate it? Is the town council going to have control over time, place and manner? Are community members going to have the opportunity to chime in about where this commercial activity is happening?”

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Alek Lewis
Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.