Town of Saugerties opts out of retail sales, consumption lounges; Village of Saugerties opts in

The Town of Saugerties voted 3-2 on Wednesday, December 29 to opt out of both retail sales of recreational marijuana and consumption at lounges after a long public hearing where opinion was nearly divided on whether the shops should be allowed. The Village of Saugerties will opt in to both cannabis retail and consumption locations after the December 31 deadline passes.

Casting no votes for the Town were Peg Nau, Mike Ivino and Deputy Town Supervisor Leanne Thornton. Town Supervisor Fred Costello and outgoing Town Board member John Schoonmaker voted yes.

Supervisor Costello had suggested amending the law to separate cannabis retail sales from consumption lounges, but that motion was struck down on the same line.

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According to the state law, municipalities who opt out have the choice of opting in in the future; those who don’t would not be allowed to opt out at a later date. Town officials had until December 31 to decide whether to opt out or be opted in by default under the state law.

Saugerties bucked the trend of neighboring towns voting to allow retail sales. Woodstock, Gardiner, Ulster and Catskill all recently voted to opt in to retail sales. The City of Kingston also voted yes on retail sales. The Town of Ulster and Gardiner voted down consumption lounges.

In casting her no vote, Thornton said she wants to give the state Cannabis Control Board time to draft regulations regarding cannabis sales and then allow voters to decide by referendum if retail or consumption establishments could be allowed at a future date. 

Despite the opt-out vote, Town officials will press ahead with zoning regulations for cannabis establishments should one be allowed in the future, Thornton said.

“I don’t feel five of us can dictate what happens in Saugerties that impacts generations of young people,” she said. That said, Thornton noted that she’s very supportive of medical marijuana and it’s helped her own family members.

She said the state regulations are moving at a slow pace and she’s heard even regulations regarding what kind of plants people can grow in their homes, sort and dry won’t be fully in place until 2024.

Schoonmaker said a lot of the opposition he heard from those against legalized cannabis stems from 1960’s-era fear of reefer madness. He said claims of cannabis serving as a gateway drug have been proven false and drug use instead stems from mental trauma, be it alcohol or opiates.

He noted how the Town already allows a number of vices like bars, liquor stores, beer stores and the sale of lottery tickets. “I’d argue alcohol is far more destructive,” Schoonmaker said.

He said users will simply go to Massachusetts or other towns if sales aren’t permitted in Saugerties.

Ivino, a volunteer firefighter who has responded to many drug overdoses, said he was concerned about what may happen should stores open in Saugerties.

The board’s vote came after a heated public hearing packed with people both in-person and online. Speakers grew quite passionate, sometimes speaking over and even booing each other.

Feelings on cannabis sales seemed to be divided by age, with all of the younger speakers on-hand speaking in favor of opting in with many of the older participants urging the board to opt out.

Joining in person, attorney Scott Miller voiced support for opting in noting cannabis is just another vice like alcohol. “I’ve walked through Saugerties, noticing all the bars going back to prohibition.

He said worries expressed by other speakers about the Town turning into a drug den were overblown. “Don’t let old-fashioned values keep us from considering the benefits,” he said.

Andrew Zink, who serves on the Village Planning Board and Tree Commission, said when he joined the meeting that he heard so much misinformation he thought he was in the 80’s.  “Let’s get a few things straight: Cannabis isn’t a gateway drug,” he said. “It isn’t addictive and nobody has ever died from smoking. The best way to make sure it isn’t laced is to have a safe, out in the open sale of it. At a time when farmers are struggling, marijuana has the ability to transform agriculture in our region and provide jobs. I believe in entrepreneurial freedom and personal freedom. If you don’t want to smoke, then don’t, but don’t take away our right to do so just because you don’t like it.”

On the other side was John Skeritt who said he used cannabis for 16 years after his older sister offered him a joint. He said he ultimately tried nearly every other drug except for sticking a needle in his arm and it robbed him of his finances. He added he later “came to his senses” and now works in prison ministry. “Saugerties has the best recreation around like Cantine Field, why don’t we promote that,” he said.

But others said using cannabis has benefited them.

Alfred Anderson said he’s smoked cannabis for the last 15 years and it’s helped to control anxiety and he noted that if weed is already here, it’s not going away.

“This makes it more reliable,” he said. He noted the Town already allows other things that are addictive like smoke shops, alcohol and fast food, which he said is intentionally addictive.

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“What is the point of opting out, that creates a lack of control, opting in looks more holistic,” Anderson said. “What are you afraid of, no one ever died of weed, maybe COPD, but more people have died from alcohol or opioids and nicotine is way more addictive, as is alcohol.”

Others said they hoped legal shops would help to snuff out illegal sales.

Rich Cousin said he started smoking cannabis when he was 20 until he was 27 and he smoked some cannabis that had some other substance laced in it, landing him in the emergency room. While he’s never used cannabis since, he believes regulated sales from a reliable source would help prevent what happened to him from happening to someone else.

“If people don’t have access to marijuana, people will get it more conveniently from a dealer,” he said.

Sakinah Irizzary, a local business owner and parent, encouraged the board to opt in to legal and controlled sales.  It will help limit products to only those 21 and older and push the illegal market out even if tax revenues don’t live up to figures that have been touted so far, Irizzary said.

“Illegal is what’s already happening,” she said. Alcohol use poses a lot more issues than I’ve seen with marijuana,” she said.

And those illegal sales terrify Beth Murphy who fears that unregulated cannabis bought off the street could be adultered with very dangerous substances.

“In Vermont, they had three instances of marijuana cut with fentanyl,” she said.

Murphy said legalized cannabis sales would mitigate that danger because it would be regulated and sold through established channels. 

Doctor-prescribed opioids, not cannabis, lead to heroin use, Susan Weeks said. “And we’re not saying we should close pharmacies and strip doctors of their licenses.”

She said opting in would ensure users in Saugerties buy local. The state law includes a 13 percent sales tax on marijuana sales, with a four percent split between the county and municipality.

Mary O’Donnell said she hoped the Town would opt out and take time to see how much the tax revenue is.

Loren Christian, also speaking out against opting in, said he’s not only worried about kids getting addicted to cannabis, but also second- and third-hand smoke.

“We’re exposing kids,” he said. “If we look beyond the propaganda, it’s very bad.” 

Village of Saugerties opts in

The Village took the opposite course of the Town of Saugerties.

In deciding to opt in, Village Mayor Bill Murphy said shutting the door ahead of time was not the right thing to do. Murphy said most of the comments he’s heard from the public in the Village were in favor of staying in. “I had very few people contacting me asking me to opt out and we had many people applaud us for not opting out,” he said.

The Mayor said by not opting out, Village officials will have a voice and be able to express concerns about any gaps there may be as state officials frame the new regulations.

“As a board, we want to continue to be forward thinking and not shut the door on the future,” he said.

Murphy said the Village is very limited in scope and new zoning laws will help to further regulate such establishments beyond the regulations that will be drafted by the State Cannabis Control Board in the coming years.

“It’s going to be difficult based on locations available with schools and churches, the Boys & Girls Club and residential neighborhoods,” Murphy said. And Village officials plan to have further setbacks from schools and churches than the 500-feet required under state laws further limiting potential sites, he added.

“If and when we do consider one, it will not be in a place that has youth traffic,” Murphy said. “That will really limit any place in the Village.”

He noted that if any proposal for such an establishment comes forth, it will have to go through the Zoning Board, Planning Board and Village Board.

“At those times, public hearings will be set to discuss that possibility,” Murphy said. “It’s not going to be an easy task and there will be plenty of time for public input.”

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