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Rockville Centre likely to opt out on pot

Residents, officials react to marijuana legalization

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Rockville Centre Mayor Francis Murray and the board of trustees said they intend to opt out of allowing cannabis sales in the village after New York state legalized recreational marijuana use on March 31.

The state’s effort was years in the making, and included regulations for a new industry and its taxation. Spanning 128 pages, the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act addresses everything from enforcement and criminal justice reform to how taxes will be levied against marijuana producers and retailers and how that revenue can be spent.

At Monday’s village board meeting, the mayor and trustees heard arguments from concerned residents and signaled their opposition to the new legislation from Albany.

Murray, Deputy Mayor Kathleen Baxley and Trustees Michael Sepe, Emilio Grillo and Nancy Howard publicly announced their intention to vote to opt out of the sale of cannabis, though a public hearing will be held at a later date as well as an official vote before the Dec. 31 deadline. Village attorney A. Thomas Levin said he was confident that the village would meet the deadline.

“I was one of the first mayors in the state to opt out,” Murray said.

According to a state news release, the new law legalizes cannabis use for those 21 and over and establishes an Office of Cannabis Management to implement a regulatory framework and to oversee licensing for marijuana producers, distributors and retailers. The governor’s office projects tax revenue to reach $350 million annually, and legalization to potentially create 30,000 to 60,000 jobs.

Democratic State Sen. Todd Kaminsky voted in favor of legalization. “Long Island representatives ensured that opt-out provisions were included in the legislations to allow localities to do what they feel is best for their communities,” he said.

While the bills in the Senate and Assembly mostly saw votes along party lines, a few Democrats voted against the legislation. Assemblywoman Judy Griffin, a Democrat from Rockville Centre, voted against the Assembly bill, citing the lack of roadside testing of drivers who may be under the influence. The bill, however, authorizes a study to develop a breathalyzer-type tool.

“We currently do not have the enforcement mechanisms necessary to prevent New Yorkers from driving under the influence of this drug,” Griffin said.

Ruthanne McCormack, the project coordinator for the Rockville Centre Coalition for Youth, said she supported Murray’s intention to opt out and Griffin’s vote against the legislation. McCormack said she was disappointed that opt-outs cannot be done at the county level, but only by cities, towns and villages.

“I know a lot of the other mayors have taken the position that no amount of tax revenue is worth the destruction that it is going to cause with our youth and our driving safety,” she said.

Rockville Centre resident Liz Boylan said that traffic safety is one of her biggest concerns, echoing Griffin’s worry that the lack of technology to detect marijuana’s influence on drivers means the enforcement infrastructure is not ready. “There is tremendous peril on the roads for all of us and our loved ones,” Boylan said.

McCormack and Boylan attended Monday’s meeting on Zoom to voice their support for the board’s position. McCormack raised concerns about cannabis signage near churches, schools and the recreation center.

“It’s all about commercialization,” Boylan said, adding that she worries that legislators in Albany passed the law without being properly prepared for possible societal consequences and impact on the local environment.

Levin explained that the board needs a local law in place in order to opt out, which it can vote to do after a public hearing. That could happen as soon as May 3, he said, when the board meets again.

Chief among the state legislation’s priorities is seeking redress for decades of unequal enforcement of marijuana laws in communities of color, according to Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, a Democrat from Elmont and one of the bill’s co-sponsors in the Assembly.

“Since the 1970s, we’ve been fighting this war on drugs,” Solages said, “and it has produced unequal outcomes across different racial groups, and communities of color bear the impact of discriminatory drug laws.”

Black and Hispanic people make up 25 percent of the population of Nassau County, but account for 55 percent of marijuana arrests, according to a 2018 report from the New York Civil Liberties Union. A Black or Hispanic person is four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, the report read.

With its passage, the law automatically expunged arrest records statewide for low-level marijuana offenses.

Local governments would be eligible for 4 percent of cannabis tax revenue. Forty percent of tax dollars generated by the industry would go to a fund for social equity, which would support workforce development and programs for families that have been hurt by drug enforcement laws, Solages said.

According to the bill, the governing board of the Office of Cannabis Management would appointing a chief equity officer, who would be responsible for developing education plans targeted at the communities most harmed by drug laws on how to obtain the licenses and permits needed to gain entry to the cannabis industry. Additionally, the social equity fund would provide low-cost loans and incubator programs to ease access into the business.

Tax dollars from cannabis sales, Solages said, would also be put toward law enforcement and education programs to ensure that underage children do not have access to marijuana and that police are better able to enforce DUI laws.

Solages said she anticipated that the legal sale of marijuana would not begin in New York for at least another year. Ultimately, she added, the new bill seeks to regulate an existing, but unofficial, industry. Nearby states such as New Jersey and Massachusetts have already legalized recreational marijuana use. “Keeping it unregulated,” Solages said, “is doing ourselves a disservice as a state.”

 

Peter Belfiore contributed to this story.