Pictured Above: David Falkowski of Open Minded Organics at the 420 Freedom Rally he organized on April 20 at Sag Harbor’s John Steinbeck Waterfront Park.
Since New York State legalized recreational marijuana on March 31, it is now legal for people over the age of 21 to carry up to 3 ounces of pot with them and to smoke it in any public place where you can smoke cigarettes.
The smell of marijuana hasn’t been wafting from every streetcorner since the law was enacted, but the confusion amongst local governments has been intense.
The Southold and Riverhead town boards have been weighing their ability to restrict the sale of marijuana within their boundaries, with no decision likely for months, as the state’s guidelines for the actual sale of marijuana have not yet been released.
David Falkowski of Open Minded Organics, which grows hemp for CBD oil in Bridgehampton, talked about this period, with possession of (likely) illegally obtained marijuana now legal yet before the state has set up a framework for legal sale, at a “420 Freedom Rally” he organized at Sag Harbor’s John Steinbeck Waterfront Park on Tuesday, April 20 at 4:20 p.m., an unofficial holiday for marijuana smokers dating back to northern California in the 1960s.
“There is this immaculate conception moment we acknowledge — apparently most New Yorkers have a food replicator they stole off the set of Star Trek The Next Generation and that’s where all the cannabis is coming from,” he said. “Cannabis, as written in the law, can be consumed right now anywhere cigarettes can be…. There’s no longer a need to act out of anger or fear. This bill is here and it’s a guideline for us to work together and figure this out.”
Mr. Falkowski shared some of the guidance that has already been developed for the new law by the New York City Police Department.
“An important ramification is that smoking in any of those locations is no longer a valid reason for an approach, stop, summons, arrest or search (by law enforcement),” he said. “This is a very important part of ending the war on drugs and the failed policy of prohibition, and reducing the pressure on people who have been disproportionately targeted and persecuted for some of these laws.”
“This is just my personal interpretation, but I wouldn’t be smoking pot in your car. Your car is not a public place,” he added. “Don’t partake and then get in your car and drive down the road intoxicated.”
“We need to be adults,” he added. “There’s eyes all across the state and the town and and the country on this, and we need to show them the world is not going to end. The world is not going to be filled with vehicles full of intoxicated people running over their children.”
While the state law gives adults over the age of 21 the right to smoke and possess small quantities of marijuana anywhere in New York, it does give local municipalities the right to govern whether they will allow marijuana dispensaries, and if they do allow them, to dictate where they are located and when they can be open. Local governments are required to enact these laws, which are subject to a permissive referendum, by Dec. 31 of this year.
The state law does allow the growing of marijuana — which is now considered a bona fide agricultural crop — anywhere in the state, though commercial growers must be licensed. Individual people may have up to three mature marijuana plants and three immature marijuana plants — up to six mature plants and six immature plants per household, at their house. New York residents will also be allowed to store up to five pounds of marijuana in their homes and are legally allowed to give marijuana to other people over the age of 21. It is illegal to give or sell marijuana to anyone under the age of 21, though minors who are found in possession of marijuana will not end up with criminal records.
“I urge our town officials and the entire community, if we permit sale here in Riverhead please support me to limit locations such as where children are present, churches, medical facilities, playgrounds or any other sensitive location in our community,” said Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar at the Riverhead Town Board’s April 15 work session. “Eventually, we will have to make a decision in favor or against. The entire community must be engaged in the process, a public hearing must be held, and there could be a permissive referendum in this November’s election.”
While much of the tax revenue expected to be generated by the state from legal sale of marijuana will go to schools, rebuilding communities that had long been harmed by strict drug laws and to addiction programs throughout the state, 4 percent of the sales tax revenue would go to the municipality where the marijuana was sold.
“I’m concerned, when it comes to dispensaries and retail shops, we know other towns are going to do it around us. There’s going to be tax money coming out of that,” said Riverhead Councilman Tim Hubbard. “Do we want people driving through Riverhead to buy marijuana in Southampton or Southold?… Do we take advantage of this, or do we say not in my backyard?”
Members of the Southold Town Board had a similar discussion at their April 20 work session.
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said he’s been receiving a lot of feedback, both positive and negative, on marijuana legalization, but he said there are also a lot of misconceptions about what the town has the authority to govern.
“We can’t do our own little version of prohibition. We don’t have that right,” he said. “Marijuana possession and use is legal in Southold Town. The towns are not trying to decide whether we want marijuana to be part of the landscape. It’s not part of our authority.”
Mr. Russell added that the state has not yet issued enough guidance regarding retail sales of marijuana for the town to make decisions about how it would regulate sales there.
“We don’t have the authority to limit growing. That’s up to New York State licensing procedure,” he added. “It’s a bona fide agricultural crop.”
Southold Councilwoman Sarah Nappa, a chef who runs Anthony Nappa Wines with her husband, who is a winemaker, said that marijuana as an agricultural crop would work differently than wine does on the North Fork, where many vineyard owners have on-site tasting rooms.
Marijuana, she said, would not be allowed to be sold on the farm where it is grown, but would have to be sold to a state-sanctioned dispensary.
Former Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, who is now the State Assemblywoman for the North Fork, came to the Riverhead Town Board’s April 15 work session to talk about some of the issues being discussed by the state.
She said one of the issues both the state and local law enforcement have been grappling with is how to determine if someone is under the influence of marijuana after a traffic stop, since currently police use a blood test to determine the quantity of cannabinoids in someone’s system.
“There are drug recognition experts. Suffolk County has nine of them and Southampton Town has one,” she said. “But with only 10 drug recognition experts, it’s going to be very difficult. Just the smell of marijuana is not probable cause to bring somebody in.”
Ms. Giglio added that, in anticipation of marijuana being legalized in New York, police K9 dogs that had been trained to recognize marijuana have all been decommissioned, and dogs being trained to detect drugs now are no longer being trained to recognize marijuana.
She said she is anticipating there will be funding from the state for implementing new driving under the influence protocols.
With regard to retail sales, Ms. Giglio said any local referendums on limiting sales would have to be put on the ballot three months prior to this November’s election.
“I think it’s important to start conversations with the community now,” she said. If you don’t put it on ballot, it’s automatically allowed as of right.”
Back at the 420 celebration in the Sag Harbor park, Mr. Falkowski and two speakers from the legalization advocacy community also urged the same amount of continued engagement on the part of marijuana advocates and users, reminding them that “democracy is not a spectator sport.”
Nicole Ricci, a member of the board of directors of NY Small Farma, pointed out that the new law, known as the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, has a lot of progressive components, including the way the tax revenue is designed to help communities long hurt by prohibition, and a pledge to help improve the state’s climate resiliency.
She added that 50 percent of licenses for growers are earmarked for women, people of color, and struggling small farmers.
“Stay engaged and active,” she said. “Now that regulations are coming, make sure the community opts in.”
Andrew Rosner Vice President of the NY Cannabis Growers & Processors Association, said the state is currently creating an Office of Cannabis Management, which will be comprised of an executive director and board members who don’t have an interest in a cannabis company, along with an advisory board of industry experts.
“Now we’re in a moment where I think there’s a lot of opportunity for communities to continue to have input into whats about to take place,” he said.
As the group disbursed along the waterfront beside the Sag Harbor bridge, there was a faint, cautious whiff of marijuana smoke in the air. After years of promise, it seemed even this crowd of advocates was shocked at the suddenness with which this day arrived, and still unsure if smoking here would really be tolerated.
Sag Harbor Police Chief A.J. McGuire, who said he’d agreed to speak at the event primarily to ask everyone to obey Covid social distancing and mask wearing guidelines, held up an iPhone 12 with a Jimi Hendrix case and asked if it belonged to anyone in the crowd.
“Yeah, no one’s claiming that,” someone blurted out as the crowd laughed.
“There’s nothing in it. I checked,” said the police chief. But there were still no immediate takers.