Pot Prohibition Ends: East End Towns, Villages to Decide on Legal Weed Sales Opt Out

A man smokes a hybrid strain joint of cannabis at his home in New York
A man smokes a hybrid strain joint of cannabis at his home in New York, U.S. April 1, 2021. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill on Wednesday to legalize adult use of marijuana, making it the 15th U.S. state to allow recreational use of the drug. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Following the recent historic passage of a New York State law legalizing the use of recreational marijuana, East End localities are considering whether to ban the sale of pot within their borders.

Of the five towns and 10 villages in the Hamptons and on the North Fork, some wasted no time publicly coming out for or against allowing dispensaries to sell weed to adults older than 21. Other local government leaders were more noncommittal, saying they needed more time to research the issue. And with a state-imposed deadline of December 31 for local governments to decide, there is sure to be plenty of debate over the next nine months — especially if voters get a chance to cast ballots deciding the issue in local referenda. 

“While the decision rests with local towns and villages, I would support giving residents a chance to decide the question by referendum,” says State Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), who represents the South Fork and voted against the law based on health and public safety concerns. “A permissive referendum on a local law to opt out can be put on the ballot by the town or village board on its own motion, or the public can petition for a referendum if the board does not put it on the ballot … I think if a town or village is going to opt out, they should put it on the ballot and not make residents petition for it.”

New York became the 15th state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana the law was enacted on March 31. Regardless of which local governments ban pot sales, it will remain legal for individuals to possess up to three ounces of weed and grow pot plants. The state, which anticipates $350 million in annual tax revenue from weed sales, will set up a licensing and regulation process, automatically expunge pot convictions, and expand access to medical marijuana.

State Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), who represents the entire East End, also voted against legalizing marijuana.

 “This bill will have an adverse impact on the health of our communities, diminish our quality of life here on the East End of Long Island and will make our roads and highways more dangerous,” Palumbo said in a statement. “I am very concerned that people driving under the influence of marijuana could seriously injure or kill innocent drivers and escape penalties if we don’t have enough trained drug recognition experts on our local police forces. Yet unsurprisingly, there was no funding provided in this legislation for these officers or additional training.”

Babylon Town Supervisor Richard Schaffer, who chairs the Suffolk County Town Supervisor Association and Suffolk Democratic Committee, is calling for all 13 town governments to opt out of allowing marijuana sales. His counterpart, Nassau County Democratic Committee Chairman Jay Jacobs, who also leads the state chapter of the party, says local officials should allow sales. 

Dan’s Papers polled all 15 East End localities to see where they stand on the issue. The one Hamptons official who was most open to the idea of allowing sales was Sag Harbor Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy.

“I don’t think we would opt out, but I don’t know,” says Mulcahy, noting that she still has to talk to her village board, police chief, and debate the idea at Sag Harbor’s next meeting on April 13. “The East End of Long Island is maybe a little bit more pro-cannabis than the rest of Suffolk County … I do know that some of us feel that as tourist towns, we can’t say ‘no’ because there are people who will come because of it or choose to go to Martha’s Vineyard.”

One up-island village has opined it may keep weed stores off Main Street and only allow them on side streets, “which I don’t think is a bad idea,” the mayor adds.

Several local officials were more willing to go on record as leaning toward banning sales.

“I have to take a very hard look,” says Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar. “We don’t want our adolescents to have immediate access to personal and growth of marijuana. I have reservations since, often marijuana is the gateway to drug usage for adolescents.”

Aguiar adds that she agrees with Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russel, who does not support marijuana farms as being classified as agricultural use locations. Russel did not respond to requests for comment.

“Our sandy soil is not conducive to marijuana growth,” Aguiar says. “Therefore, we may conceivably see very large brick cinder block buildings threaten our bucolic views along Riverhead and the North Fork.”

West Hampton Dunes Mayor Gary Vegliante echoes the opposition.

“We are not inclined to allow legalized marijuana sales,” says Vegliante, noting that in his case, it’s partly because there’s no retail establishments in the village, which is primarily residential.

Most town supervisors and village mayors reached by Dan’s Papers refused to take a stance either way.

“It’s too soon to decide,” says Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. “The board will discuss the matter over the next few weeks to decide if they want to stay in, opt out, or put the opt-out question on the ballot for the public to decide.”

East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc told the April 6 town board work session that he agrees with decriminalization of marijuana possession, but had yet to discuss with the board whether they would enact a ban. He notes that if they enact a ban, it could later be reversed.

“There’s no real urgency that we have to act right away,” he said. “As far as business opportunities and source of revenue think that is something I have a lot of questions about still … I’m going to take a slow approach.”

Shelter Island Town Supervisor Jim Dougherty says through an aide that he has yet to discuss the issue with his board, either.

East Hampton Village Mayor Jerry Larsen says his board will discuss the issue at its next board meeting in May. Westhampton Beach Mayor says her board will debate it at its next work session in April. North Haven Mayor Jeff Sander says the issue is unlikely to affect his village “since we have no retail stores and are not zoned for any.”

Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren is also doing his due diligence

We do not have any plans yet,” he says. “We would like community input as this is a community decision. We also plan on speaking with the other mayors and supervisors on the East End as well as State Assemblyperson Fred Thiele.”

The village mayors of Greenport, Dering Harbor, Quogue, and Sagaponack did not respond to requests for comment.

Pro-pot advocates maintain that local officials should be careful in how they deliberate.

“Lawmakers … should not approach this decision from the standpoint of whether or not to allow cannabis into their communities,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), an organization that has long lobbied for legalization. “Cannabis is already in their communities. The question is, do you want these transactions to be open, transparent and regulated by state and local governments, or do you want them to be kept in the shadows and dominated by criminal entrepreneurs?”

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