Smithtown weighs its options on retail marijuana sales and is tilting toward 'no'

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Smithtown’s Town Board has scheduled a Sept. 23 public hearing for legislation to opt out of a provision of New York State marijuana law legalizing retail sale of the drug.

Two board members — Supervisor Edward Wehrheim and Tom Lohmann — have already said in interviews that they see little benefit to allowing dispensaries and cafes in the town, at least for now. The town’s share of marijuana sales tax revenue is unlikely to be significant, they said. Lohmann, a former NYPD detective with experience in narcotics enforcement, said he also had serious misgivings about contributing to the spread of what he called a “gateway drug.”

The state law, passed in March, gives municipalities until Dec. 31 to opt out of retail sales. Long Island municipalities including Islip, Shelter Island and the Smithtown village of Nissequogue have done so. They can opt back in at any time. The local laws do not affect personal use of marijuana, which is legal under the state law in most places where tobacco use is permitted, though impaired driving is still a crime.

State officials have said that legalization will create thousands of jobs and generate $350 million in annual tax revenue, 3% of which will flow to local municipalities.

It’s not clear, however, whether the promise of tax revenues will entice town residents and local officials in Smithtown.

The town board voted 5-0 in 2018 with strong public support to ban hookah lounges and stores that sell electronic cigarettes from operating within 1,500 feet of parks, schools and places of worship, and would likely place restrictions at least as stringent on marijuana businesses. That would “drastically reduce any [tax] revenue stream from any of those retail businesses,” Wehrheim said. He also said the state legislation left open questions about industry regulation.

Lohmann was more adamant.

“I spent seven years in narcotics in the city in the height of the crack epidemic,” he said. “I had multiple training classes by the DEA [federal Drug Enforcement Administration], and every single one I’ve taken, every single one, the constant was that marijuana was a gateway drug to harder-use narcotics.”

The consequences are sometimes lethal, he said. “Every day in Suffolk County and almost every other day in the 4th Precinct, there’s a drug overdose.”

Lohmann called the promise of a new public revenue stream “pie in the sky” thinking, citing the experience of Colorado, where marijuana sales that began in 2014 resulted in lower-than-expected tax receipts.

David Falkowski, a Bridgehampton farmer who owns a hemp products store and chairs the Long Island chapter of the New York Cannabis Growers and Processors Association, said industry leaders expect regulations to roll out in coming months. Detailed rules will assuage some concerns about the market, he said.

“Cannabis will have to be licensed,” he said. “Product will be tested, tracked and traced, and people will be checking for ID’s. None of this is happening on the existing black market.”