Auburn City Council took its first public step toward deciding whether to opt out of parts of the state's law legalizing recreational marijuana at its weekly meeting Thursday.
Though council didn't make any decisions that night, instead hearing a presentation on the law, its members were immediately reminded of the subject's immense public interest.
Before Corporation Counsel Stacy DeForrest's presentation even began, two Auburn residents took the podium to share their thoughts on the law during the meeting's public comment period.
The first, David Clifford, said that marijuana offers economic and environmental benefits. Its legalization will also lead to higher case clearance rates for police, he continued, and the expungement of possession charges that no longer exist today will help people who've had difficulty with employment. Clifford ended by encouraging councilors to contact him to discuss the matter further.
The second commenter, JoLynn Mulholland, is project coordinator for the Cayuga County Drug-Free Community Coalition. She shared concerns about the law affecting the area's youth, saying the coalition's data shows a youth marijuana rate above the national average. People driving under its influence and children accessing plants grown by their parents are other concerns, she added.
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Municipalities in the Cayuga County area are weighing the pros and cons of opting out of parts of New York state's law legalizing marijuana.
To clear the air, City Clerk Chuck Mason then noted that contrary to rumors on social media, council would not be casting any votes about marijuana that night.
Later in the meeting, DeForrest began her presentation about the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act signed into law March 31 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
As DeForrest explained, the parts of the law that legalize possession and use of marijuana took effect immediately, and municipalities cannot opt out of them. The city of Auburn can, however, opt out of permitting retail sales at dispensaries and licensing on-site usage of the substance. The city can do so, she continued, by passing a law prohibiting those activities or placing time, place and manner restrictions on them. Any restrictions must comply with zoning regulations and cannot be "unreasonably impracticable" with respect to other permitted businesses and effects on traffic and noise.
New York gives municipalities until Dec. 31 to opt out, DeForrest said. They can't opt out after then, but they can opt back in at any time. If a municipality opts out, residents have 45 days to petition for a referendum that would allow the public to vote on the matter. In order to meet the filing deadlines for that vote to take place in November, council would have to adopt a law opting out by June 24.
Much of DeForrest's presentation, and the questions she would field from council members afterward, concerned limitations on the use and potential sale of marijuana locally.
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Though the state's law allows public use, the substance can't be smoked anywhere in Auburn that tobacco can't be smoked. The law additionally prohibits marijuana use in tobacco businesses and conventions, outdoor dining areas and automobiles. As for sales, the state's new Cannabis Control Board and Office of Cannabis Management will license dispensaries like the Liquor Authority does alcohol vendors. There will be rules limiting the number of marijuana retailers in any given area, both DeForrest and Councilor Debby McCormick said, and the city will be privy to license applications.
"There are so many parallels between the way alcohol is regulated and the way this is set up," DeForrest said.
The city's corporation counsel also broke down the revenue Auburn stands to collect from marijuana sales when they're permitted beginning April 1, 2022. Of a total excise tax of 13%, 9% would go to the state, 3% to the municipality and 1% to the county. Sales will be subject to sales tax as well, DeForrest said, and the law allows municipalities to spend the revenue any way they wish.
Councilor Terry Cuddy said that revenue could be particularly helpful in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made balancing the city's next budget a challenge. Cuddy then noted the social and economic justice dimensions of the law, and DeForrest confirmed that the state plans to grant about 50% of its marijuana licenses to women, minorities and other disadvantaged individuals.
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Conversely, Councilor Tim Locastro asked DeForrest what expenses the law could create for the city of Auburn. DeForrest said she doesn't foresee any specific ones, and deferred to City Manager Jeff Dygert. He said that aside from some zoning reviews and other legal discussions, most of the law's regulation will fall to the state. But he did detail one change he anticipates for Auburn police.
"As this becomes more commonplace, there will be people that are offended by it, or troubled by it, and will call expecting maybe a particular course of action to be taken against people who are legally utilizing marijuana," Dygert said. "So I think the police department's probably going to have a large public education burden on them."
Councilor Jimmy Giannettino said that for him, the main takeaway of the night's meeting was a sharper understanding of what Auburn stands to gain or lose by opting out.
"If we opt out, we can't prohibit the smoking of it in the city of Auburn," he said. "So if we were to opt out and Sennett, Aurelius, Fleming, Owasco don't opt out, what's going to happen is people are going to drive to those towns, they're going to buy it and they're going to come into Auburn."
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