NORTH TONAWANDA – After months of consideration and research, the common council has voted not to opt-out of the state law permitting marijuana dispensaries and on-site marijuana consumption businesses in New York state communities.
During the common council’s Tuesday meeting, aldermen determined that North Tonawanda would permit such businesses following a recommendation from the Way Forward Committee, which was established following the passage of the state’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) in March. The committee conducted a survey which found that North Tonawanda residents overwhelmingly support allowing marijuana-related businesses
“I thought it was very important and prudent to decide how we opt-in for the public safety and health of the city and our residents,” said outgoing Third Ward Alderman Eric Zadzilka, a member of the committee, during Tuesday’s meeting.
In addition to Zadzilka, the committee included City Judge Luke Brown – who was serving as city attorney at the time, Police Chief Thomas Krantz, Lt. Det. Michelle Day, Community Health Alliance of North Tonawanda (CHANT) Program Coordinator Lyndsay Stover, and city residents Carol Harvey and Kim Sinon.
New York legalized recreational marijuana in March, making it the 18th state to do so. MRTA legalizes the possession and sale of marijuana for adults 21 and older.
According to the text of law, the state legislature found that criminalizing marijuana did more harm than good. It failed to cut down on marijuana use, the law says, while having “devastating collateral consequences” – such as high levels of incarceration – which in turn have caused lasting adverse impacts for otherwise law-abiding people.
“Existing laws have also created an illicit market which represents a threat to public health and reduces the ability of the legislature to deter the accessing of marihuana by minors,” the law says. “Existing marihuana laws have disproportionately impacted African-American and Latino communities.”
Communities have the option to “opt-out” and choose not to participate in the part of MRTA that allows marijuana-related commercial operations. But the committee felt that opting out would not be a benefit to North Tonawanda, which would receive a portion of the sales tax collected from such establishments.
Zadzilka said the survey created by the committee was completed by more than a 1,000 people. According to the survey results included in the committee’s recommendations to the council, nearly 83% of respondents said they support retail marijuana operations in the city, while 68 percent said they favored on-site marijuana consumption facilities.
But most people believed these businesses should be kept away from some existing establishments. Nearly 74% of respondents said it was very important or somewhat important to them that there be distance between marijuana-related businesses and places like schools or playgrounds, and nearly 53% had similar feelings about churches and other places of worship.
“The committee recommends that zoning restrictions be placed on retail cannabis dispensaries to be at least 1,500 feet from schools, playgrounds and athletic fields,” Zadzilka said, “and at least 500 feet from churches and places of worship.”
However, concerns were raised that these limits might significantly reduce the number of places where these businesses could open, particularly with the 500-foot recommendation for places of worship. Cosimo Capozzi, who previously served as North Tonawanda’s building inspector, told the council to carefully consider the zoning requirements for marijuana-related business to ensure they don’t end up banned in the city’s busiest commercial areas.
“I would suggest that you review that a little bit closer, map out the churches,” Capozzi said. “Because you are taking out part of Main Street, you are taking out part of Webster, you are taking out part of Tremont and you are taking out part of Oliver, some of our most concentrated business areas.”
The recommendations also include a request that the city consider earmarking a portion of the tax revenues to benefit addiction services, prevention and education or police enforcement and training.
Council President Bob Pecoraro, who is involved with CHANT, said he would have opposed MRTA if he had been a state lawmaker, but recognized the overwhelming community support for legalizing marijuana. He says he plans to keep an eye on the rollout of the law and said he worries that members of the public who support the measure may not totally comprehend the impacts of legalization.
“It’s a decision that I’m not sure the residents of North Tonawanda understand completely,” he said. “So I will continue to watch out and be a watch guide to make sure that we do the right things.”