On Feb. 23, the Town of Rochester board convened to hear public comment concerning proposed local law B-23, the purpose of which is to regulate the future retail cannabis industry in Rochester. New York state voted last year to legalize cannabis retail dispensaries, as well as onsite cannabis consumption facilities. (A dispensary, like a liquor store, sells its product to take away. "Onsite consumption" can be likened to drinking in a bar.) Municipalities were invited to opt out of allowing them, but the majority, including Rochester, did not do that.
“Let me start by saying that [anyone in either business] would need a state permit," said town supervisor Mike Baden. "At the moment, the state permits are tied up in the courts. None are being issued. So this is somewhat premature." However, since the board voted not to opt out, "the state requires us to make zoning specifications" for possible cannabis businesses. "This code does establish that."
Baden explained that either you have a retail dispensary or an onsite consumption facility; you cannot legally combine the two, at least in New York. As far as location, law B-23 provides that cannabis businesses “may only occur in our [B] business zone” along portions of Route 209, or the AB-3, “our agricultural business zone, also along Route 209,” and the industrial zone [I], “very small districts in various places spread throughout our town.” Additionally, they must be at least 500 feet away from houses of worship and from any place where children congregate: schools, playgrounds, athletic fields and so on. They also have to be 500 feet from any alcohol-related business and from each other.
“There are a very limited number of properties" that would be eligible under these rules, Baden estimated, "probably less than 15 parcels ... they are all along Route 209."
Several people who came to comment were concerned about the effects of commercial cannabis products on children and reported having seen such products packaged to look like candy cigarettes, Cheetos and Doritos.
Rick Jones, who is a member of the Planning Board, commented, "I'm fine with the retail sales,” but he said he wasn't crazy about the onsite consumption, “at all.” He requested that the Planning Board be given a map to let them know which parcels on 209 would be eligible.
Then a man stood up to say, “I’m Jay Martin, and I, for one, am opposed to Local Law B for many reasons. Any law no matter how well thought out always has unintended consequences.” Truck drivers, school bus drivers, EMT drivers, all are subject to random drug testing, he said. “So it’s going to be interesting seeing who’s using these facilities … As far as consumption – help!! You might as well open up a brothel or an opium den … I think we have taken a step downward in our culture.” Martin said he has been a teacher and taught in the Rondout Valley schools for three decades. “I see kids come in stoned, they look like sleeping Jesus, they put their heads down on the desk … There are parents who have parties and permit underage drinking. You don’t think that’s going to happen with cannabis?!” He said he’s afraid people will come out of consumption facilities stoned and have traffic accidents. "I think we’re going in the wrong direction.”
A woman pointed out that recreational marijuana is legal statewide. John Dunning, the Accord fire commissioner, said, “People want to do what they want to do … it’s a moot point.” He added that cannabis gives relief to “people with terminal illnesses. It’s not all about getting high.”
Baden said, “Bear in mind that [this law] is about when and where it can operate. The state has already decided that this is allowed. We chose not to opt out, as did many other towns.” Someone asked how much revenue the town would see. Baden didn’t know, but said it would be a percentage of profits.
Another man named Alex commented that in Singapore, where he is from, people are punished for the smallest infraction, like chewing gum on the sidewalk. He thinks it’s better to have freedom. “People are looking for a little bit of relief. If they can’t get it here, guess what? They’ll go to another town and get it … We learn to self-regulate, that’s why we have schools.”
As long as the court case goes on, nobody can open a shop in the Hudson Valley. But, said Baden, “if and when” that’s resolved, this law will govern when and where shops can operate. “This is called home rule. Very similar to alcohol, which is governed by the NYS Liquor Authority … In this case, the state gave every municipality the chance to opt out. This board discussed it and decided not to opt out.”
A woman thought maybe they should increase the cannabis shops' distance away from schools, churches and so on to 1,000 feet.
Someone else remarked that, since the black market has been going on anyway, regulating it will allow the state to ensure that the product people consume will be safer and better.
A woman concerned about the super-strength of today's commercial marijuana asked if Rochester could say OK to dispensaries but not the “bars." Another woman mentioned that Ellenville or Wawarsing had made that choice. Baden said it was too late; the board's decision on that front had already been made.
Dunning, the next commenter, said, “The state cannabis industry is highly regulated. They have a camera on every single plant … Instead of going down the street and buying it from your buddy, it’s a bonus. You know where it’s coming from. Each plant has basically a ‘social security number ‘… it is very, very, very regulated.” However, Dunning said he thought that owning an onsite consumption facility would result in liability problems. “ I wouldn’t be a site owner. I wouldn’t want to be that person.”
Lastly, a woman identifying herself as Kira called in, saying that she is a farmer, “working with someone who has a recreational grower’s license. That person is in Marbletown at the moment, and we are looking to buy a property that is in your town to run a potential microbusiness … it’ll be pretty limited in the amount you’re able to grow, but it gives a farmer the ability to [control] the entire process from top to bottom. Right now, the way the state has this set up, they have to wholesale their product out or they have to use a processor who turns their product into something else and they take a cut and sell to the dispensaries.” Switching to a microbusiness model would give the farmer more control and more of a profit margin.
Kira had read through Local Law B and saw a problem with the provision prohibiting housing in the same building as a cannabis business. “If we go through with this, we would be very interested in putting up housing for the people who’d be working with us. It’s very expensive, very difficult to find [housing for workers], so I’m just asking that you guys look at that part of what you’re legislating. When you look around the state, any dispensary that’s in a bigger town or city, it’s in a building that has residential units above it.”
Baden replied that putting up housing for employees was not at issue under this law. “I don’t know if farmers can sell directly to consumers or not under the new [NYS] code," he said.
Another attendee at the meeting clarified what Kira was talking about: a proposed regulation on the state level that would allow the licensing of microbusinesses, limited in scale, that would allow farmers to process and sell the cannabis they grow, sort of like a farmstand. This begs the question of whether the town would allow cannabis sales at any farm's particular location.
The public hearing was held open for another session, at a time to be determined. The board will take comments into consideration. People interested in reading proposed Local Law B-23 can find it on the town's website under Codes and Ordinances, subhead "Legislation."
This digital edition was updated on March 6 to correct comments wrongly attributed to Troy Dunn. Those comments were made John Dunning. BlueStone Press apologizes for the error.
The BSP was unable to obtain all the names of commenters at the hearing from the town records.