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Keene opts out of marijuana dispensary, pot bar licenses

KEENE — The Keene Town Board voted unanimously to opt out of licensing marijuana on-site consumption establishments, popularly known as pot bars, at their monthly meeting Tuesday, Oct. 12.

Voting were Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson and Town Council members Jennifer Whitney, Teresa Cheetham-Palen, Bob Biesemeyer and David Deyo.

When it came to opting out of licensing retail marijuana dispensaries, however, there was a split vote of 3 to 2, with Cheetham-Palen and Wilson voting to opt in.

The next step is to draft a local law, which Wilson will do; hold a public hearing, which will be at the Oct. 26 meeting; and pass the law by the end of the year 2021 at a date to be determined.

Referring to the New York Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, Biesemeyer explained, “My number one reason for opting out is that according to the state law, once you opt in, it’s a done deal. You can never opt out again.” He prefers a wait-and-see approach.

If the board did nothing before the end of the year, the town would by default allow the licensing of retail cannabis establishments, which would be impossible to reverse in future. By opting out now, the town could eventually reverse the law and allow licensing at a future date.

A retail dispensary-licensed business functions in a similar way to a liquor store. Products would not be consumed on the premises, but would be purchased to take away.

An on-site consumption business would allow customers to purchase and consume cannabis products in a social atmosphere on the premises, but not to take out, the same way they might purchase and drink alcohol in a bar.

Board members Whitney and Cheetham-Palen said that because the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act is new, not enough is known about how it will work in actual practice. Whitney and Biesemeyer expressed concern about how the retail establishments would affect children.

“I was ambivalent at first,” Cheetham-Palen said, “but there are still unknowns about the state law. I’d be comfortable with dispensaries, but one part people are concerned about is pot bars.”

A survey posted by the board on the Keene Nextdoor social media site backs up Cheetham-Palen’s assessment. Respondents voted 70% in favor of licensing dispensaries in Keene and 55% opposed to licensing on-site consumption businesses.

There were questions about the reliability of the survey results, however, since people outside of Keene were able to participate, and there was a possibility of people voting multiple times. Also, not every Keene resident follows Keene Nextdoor, so that knowledge of the survey was limited.

Deyo said that while he is not a marijuana user himself, he has no opposition to it and has no issues with its use.

“We have time,” Deyo pointed out. “If we opt out, we can always opt back in, and we can control it. We don’t have to be guinea pigs.”

The supervisor agreed.

“My big fear is having a head shop,” Wilson said, stating that controlling the location, appearance and operation of a head shop would be difficult, because Keene has no zoning laws in place. It could change the character of the town.

“What would it look like? What kind of music would possibly be blaring out? We have no models, no other small New York tourist towns to look at. I’m hesitant about getting in at the front end. But it’s hard, because people ask, why restrain something that’s legal in New York state?”

This law is subject to a permissive referendum, meaning that interested citizens can create a petition, collecting signatures of residents who are in favor of licensing, and force a public vote asking citizens whether they would like to opt out. The number of signatures must equal at least 10% of the number of residents who voted in the most recent New York gubernatorial election, in 2018, and the petition must be filed for referendum and certified by the town clerk within 45 days of passage of the new town law.

Wilson said a permissive referendum vote could be on the ballot in the general election in November 2022 or in a special vote. In either case, it would come up for a vote on a date not less than 60 days after the petition has been certified.