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SKANEATELES

Tensions high at Skaneateles meeting on marijuana

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SKANEATELES — The town of Skaneateles held a somewhat heated public information meeting Tuesday about New York state's recently passed law legalizing recreational marijuana.

A little-known aspect of the law was the focus of much of the meeting, which eventually saw residents sharing a wide range of opinions about the law and the substance itself. 

Presenting at the meeting was attorney Michael Balestra of Hancock Estabrook, who took the 30 residents in attendance at the Austin Park Pavilion through the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act signed into law March 31 by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The reason for the meeting, Balestra explained, is that the town and village of Skaneateles can opt out of two parts of the law: allowing retail marijuana sales at dispensaries and allowing consumption sites. If so, their boards must draft local laws, which would be subject to referendums if enough residents petition for one. 

Municipalities have until Dec. 31 to opt out, Balestra said, but can repeal their local laws any time afterward. Every other part of the new state law will be in effect in Skaneateles regardless, Balestra continued. That includes the legalization of possession of up to 3 ounces of marijuana, use of the substance and, eventually, growing up to three mature and three immature plants at home. 

"This is something that most people don't see in their lifetimes. We're literally taking a new product that we've never been able to legally have and now we're saying to everyone, 'This is a new commodity. We can make it, we can sell it, we can use it,'" Balestra said. "The state already decided where we're going. You can't keep marijuana out of the town or the village." 

As residents began raising their hands with questions, Balestra stressed that the particulars of the state's law have yet to be finalized. The new Office of Cannabis Management, which will oversee the substance in New York, is currently "a shell," he said. Until its board is appointed and its regulations are drafted, the timetable and other details of licensing marijuana businesses is unknown.

That includes growers, dispensaries, consumption sites and microbusinesses — which would become a recurring subject of questions at the meeting. Microbusinesses, Balestra explained, are licensed to grow, process, distribute and dispense marijuana. But municipalities cannot opt out of allowing them the way they can with traditional dispensaries, effectively making microbusinesses a loophole.

Due to the lack of regulatory language from the state, however, Balestra couldn't provide more specifics on microbusinesses Tuesday. For instance, it's uncertain whether they can be operated out of residences, but he believes zoning laws will likely make that question moot. The amount of marijuana a microbusiness is limited to growing and processing is also unknown, he said.

Another microbusiness question the attorney was unable to answer involved tax revenue. Dispensary sales of marijuana will carry a 4% local tax on top of the state's 9% tax: 3% for the municipality and 1% for the county. Municipalities that opt out of allowing dispensaries will not see that revenue, Balestra said, but it's unknown whether they will see revenue from microbusiness sales as well.

About halfway through the meeting, questions about microbusinesses and other aspects of the state's law gave way to comments on the possibility of the town or village of Skaneateles opting out.

Among the most vocal supporters of the village allowing dispensaries and consumption sites was Joshua Allyn, owner of area hemp farm Tap Root Fields.

"I think about the school that we're building right now, and this would be a great resource," he said. "Really, by saying 'no' to this, you're turning down a lot of money that would be potentially generated for the town. And it's here. There's really nothing that you can do about taking it back. Really, you're deciding on collecting money or not. And I'd hate to see you not."

Several Skaneateles residents who work in health care also commented at the meeting. After one praised its medical applications, another health care provider, Kira Fiutak, disagreed.

"We can always opt in in the future. We can never opt out. We don't have regulations that are defined. Why rush into it?" she said. 

Timree Williams, a nurse of 15 years, countered with an endorsement of marijuana based on personal experience.

"It's incredibly sad the patients that I get who abuse alcohol and opioids. I have never once had a patient who abuses marijuana and has any kind of significant medical issues," she said.

As residents continued sharing opinions about marijuana, town board member Chris Legg reminded them that the substance is already legal in the state.

"We really only have two things we can act on. The others are not within our control and they can happen regardless," he said. "Those are done deals. The state has already communicated to everybody precisely how they want to see this industry grow and develop. We only have two very simple decisions to make that have consequences outside of just those two decisions."

Town Supervisor Janet Aaron ended the meeting by telling residents the board will consider the feedback it received that night as it looks to make its decision by Dec. 31.

"We have a lot to consider and look at," she said. "We've got to try to make the best decision for the community."

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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I edit The Citizen's features section, Lake Life, and weekly entertainment guide, Go. I've also been writing for The Citizen and auburnpub.com since 2006, covering arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

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