Vote on Cairo cannabis law off the table

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By Melanie Lekocevic

Capital Region Independent Media

Putting the cannabis issue on the ballot in November would not be allowed under New York state law, Cairo town attorney Tal Rappleyea said Monday. File photo

CAIRO — A proposed public referendum on the town’s decision to opt out of permitting cannabis dispensaries and lounges would be illegal, town attorney Tal Rappleyea said.

Deputy Town Supervisor MaryJo Cords led the town board’s April 4 meeting and said a previous plan to put the issue on the November ballot was not permitted. Town Supervisor Jason Watts and Town Councilwoman Debra Bogins were absent from the meeting.

“At our previous meeting, we talked about the cannabis law that we opted out of,” Cords said. “We talked about wanting to have a resolution on the ballot in November to see whether the public wanted it or didn’t want it. Our town attorney tells us we can’t do that.”

Cannabis was legalized in New York state by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo on March 31, 2021, and gave municipalities the choice of opting in or opting out of allowing marijuana dispensaries and lounges by the end of 2021. The Cairo Town Council voted in late December to opt out.

At the last meeting of the board, officials began exploring the option of putting the issue to a vote to enable local residents to have their say on whether marijuana dispensaries and lounges should be permitted in the town.

But Rappleyea said Monday that was not allowed under New York state law.

There are two types of referendums in New York — mandatory, which is required for certain actions taken by local governments, and permissive, which would require a petition submitted to the town within 30 days of a decision.

Neither currently applies to the cannabis issue, Rappleyea said.

“Most laws are not subject to either a permissive or a mandatory referendum, expect that when the Legislature set up the cannabis law, they said you can either do nothing, which means you opt in automatically come Dec. 31, 2021, or you can opt out by Dec. 30, 2021, and then that resolution and local law is subject to a permissive referendum, which means the people can then circulate a petition and put it to a vote,” Rappleyea said.

No such petition was submitted to the town within the timeframe required under the law.

“That did not happen after we made the resolution and local law at the last meeting of 2021,” Rappleyea said. “By Jan. 30 we did not receive a petition, so that law opting out became automatically binding.”

The town still has the option of repealing the local law adopted in December opting out of permitting cannabis sales, but a vote on the ballot would not be legal.

“If we did put it out to a vote, we would be violating New York state law,” Rappleyea said. “We would not have the authority to do that. It’s a great idea and I think it would be great if we could have a specific say on a vote from folks, whether they want it or not, but the time for that has come and gone.”

There are other options to consider, town officials said.

Cords said the board was looking into having a public meeting with the cannabis issue the only item on the agenda to gather community input.

“We hear everybody’s opinion, and then we decide whether we want to opt in or remain opting out,” Cords said.

Local resident Monica Kenny-Keff suggested sending out a survey to gather as many opinions as possible.

Rappleyea said that would be permissible.

“You can gather information, either with a mailer or perhaps put out a survey on the website so people can access it there,” he said.

Kenny-Keff recommended holding multiple meetings to give as many people as possible a chance to participate. She also wanted to hold off on the meeting until New York state issues the guidelines governing cannabis businesses. The state has not finalized many aspects of the regulations that would apply.

“At the last meeting, everyone who was here had agreed that it should happen after New York makes up its mind about what the regulations are going to be so it would be an information session as well as some sort of a vote,” Kenny-Keff said. “My opinion is that you will have more informed comments if New York state has decided what they are going to do, then those people — the people of the town — can decide their position as well.”

Cords agreed the town does not have to make an immediate decision.

“It’s not something we have to do right away,” Cords said. “We can wait until we have more information, and then we can make a more informed decision.”

The New York State Office of Cannabis Management is accepting comments on the proposed regulations on adult-use cannabis through May 31. Regulations are expected to be announced after the comment period closes.

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