It was more than two months ago that we last published an editorial asking a question of local lawmakers: Why wait on public meetings on cannabis?
Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the state’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act into law nearly seven months before that editorial, triggering a deadline for local governments to make a decision on cannabis dispensaries and licensing.
Yet, somehow, it wasn’t until just weeks before the state’s Dec. 31 deadline for local governments to opt out, if they choose to, that local lawmakers held hearings on cannabis and took a vote. There are still local boards that haven’t formally made a decision one way or another.
Is this a complex decision with a lot of unknowns? Yes. But was there plenty of time to debate ideas, learn more about the nuances of the law and weigh the pros and cons? Also yes.
On March 31, when Cuomo signed the law, it was clear that it would be some time before all of the details were ironed out. Sales weren’t expected to start until 2022, and the law called for the creation of not one but two new state entities: the Cannabis Control Board, to create regulations, and the Office of Cannabis Management, to carry out those regulations.
If the entities that will create and implement regulations haven’t even been created yet, of course there’s reason to be cautious. Here’s the thing, though: the decision many local boards have ultimately made — to opt out, for now, either to force a public referendum or to wait for more details about the state’s regulation of dispensaries before opting back in — could’ve been made at any time this year. The law includes a provision that allows local governments to opt back in at any time after they’ve opted out. Regardless of when lawmakers made the decision to opt out, the timeline for a person to get the signatures needed to place the question on the ballot in the next election would’ve been the same: 45 days for towns, 30 days for villages.
This was a big decision. New York’s multi-billion dollar recreational marijuana market is projected to generate $350 million in tax revenue every year, revenue that would be split between the state, county governments and local governments. That’s a lot of possible revenue, and at the local level, that influx of cash could mean lower taxes, provided the municipality’s expenses don’t rise considerably.
In many municipalities, this decision became not just an economic one but one of community identity and morals.
The process of making this decision is evidence of how our local elected officials handle big decisions. Did they do well? Did they not? Was there a focus on transparency and public input? Did they ultimately do what was best for the community?
These questions — among many others — will inevitably be on the minds of voters when election season comes around.