Let the people decide: Tusten gears up for a cannabis referendum

By LIAM MAYO
Posted 11/2/21

TUSTEN, NY — When the Town of Tusten held its Tuesday, October 12 public hearing on whether to allow cannabis dispensaries and smoking lounges, opinions from the public—and from the …

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Let the people decide: Tusten gears up for a cannabis referendum

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TUSTEN, NY — When the Town of Tusten held its Tuesday, October 12 public hearing on whether to allow cannabis dispensaries and smoking lounges, opinions from the public—and from the board—were split.

The state law that legalized cannabis allows the town to opt out of the program for licensing dispensaries and on-site consumption places, or smoking lounges, effectively banning those businesses from operating within the town.

A majority of the public attendees at the hearing spoke against opting out. They cited the potential business a dispensary could bring to Tusten, and stated that public perception of cannabis as dangerous stemmed from a decades-long smear campaign against it. Others spoke in favor of the opt-out, including one resident who said he had lost his son to opioids and wanted to avoid having drugs in Tusten.

Opinions on the board were likewise split. The original resolution drafted for the public hearing banned both dispensaries and smoking lounges as a single vote. Following the hearing, several board members asked if they could split the resolution and vote on each half separately.

The board ultimately voted 4-0 to ban smoking lounges and split 2-2 on whether to opt out of dispensaries, with supervisor Ben Johnson abstaining out of concern for a possible conflict of interest.

Following the meeting, Johnson talked with the town’s attorney and learned that, while he did not need to abstain, the board had erred in how it split the resolutions. The board is voting again on Monday, November 1 with each resolution as a separate local law, and will hold another public hearing before its final vote at its Tuesday, November 9 board meeting.

A public referendum

Whatever way the board votes, the issue will likely be decided by referendum. The local laws by which the town may opt out of licensing dispensaries and smoking lounges are subject to permissive referendum. A group of people within the community had drafted a petition for such a referendum before the town board’s October meeting.

That petition was invalidated by the board’s decision to split the resolution, says Brandi Merolla, and a pair of newly drafted petitions will circulate after the board’s November 9 vote.

Merolla says the town is fortunate to have this opportunity for a public referendum, allowing Tusten residents to vote to allow for dispensaries and consumption sites or not.

Johnson agrees. “You’re only five board members to represent the people.” It’s good that people have the chance to come out to vote, he says; the board will take its direction from that.

The issue has attracted a significant amount of discussion and controversy.

People come into the issue with different preconceived notions, says David Holland, an attorney in the cannabis field. There are lots of good reasons to opt out, as well as lots of good reasons to opt in, but there’s a lot of conflicting information circulating.

A conference held at the Narrowsburg Union on Saturday, October 9, the Catskills Cannabis Consortium, attempted to clear up some of that conflicting information. Experts on the panel (including Holland) spoke about the industrial and economic possibilities of hemp, the origins of historical misconceptions surrounding cannabis, and its thousands of years of use as a form of natural medicine.

Janet Spacey, who owns Janet’s Kosmic Groovy Shop in Bethel, attests to cannabis’ use as medicine. She sells medical CBD from an organic grower in Maine; the uses include pain relief and soothing anxiety. She says that, in her experience, people can take cannabis products for pain instead of relying on conventional medication.  

With a possible referendum approaching, Holland says that he’s experienced a lot of local leaders reaching out and wanting to get educated on the issue before they vote, and local citizens wanting to know how the process works. And he’s glad as well that Tusten can have a referendum on the issue—there are very few issues that can be voted on by referendum in New York State, he says, and there are more than enough people in Tusten willing to put it on the ballot.

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