Hashish within the Adirondacks: A pure financial excessive?

Some cannabis boosters say visitor and natural amenities make a village like Lake Placid a prime location for marijuana tourism. The village, like others around the Adirondacks, has yet to decide how to handle New York State’s legalization of the drug. Photo by Kris Parker

While towns consider whether to opt out, some say the park is perfect for marijuana tourism

By Janet Reynolds

Cannabis advocates may have done a happy dance March 31 when New York State became the 16th state to legalize adult recreational cannabis use, but so far Adirondack Park town officials are taking a wait-and-see approach.

The governor’s office is projecting that the adult-use cannabis market could reach $4 billion statewide upon maturity and generate up to $350 million annually in tax revenue. The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) establishes the local excise tax on the sale of cannabis products at 4% of the products’ price. Counties would receive 25% of the local retail tax revenue while 75% would go to each municipality hosting a dispensary.

While the potential tax revenue sounds alluring for a region that struggles to lure commercial ventures, town officials contacted for this article universally said it was too soon to tell if their town would be willing to host a cannabis retail dispensary.

“We’re not sure about a dispensary,” says Lake Placid Deputy Mayor Pete Holdereid. “What if it causes more law enforcement problems? If people think they have the right to get stoned, like alcohol, the more you smoke the stupider you’re going to be.”

Under the law, each town has until Dec. 31 to opt out of allowing a dispensary or on-site consumption license for something like a spa that uses cannabis products in their municipality. Municipalities cannot opt out of adult-use legalization. In other words, town officials cannot prevent people from using cannabis in their towns.

Marijuana candies, brownies, joints and leaves.Legalization in other states has led to a variety of products that studies suggest can motivate a significant percentage of Americans to visit. New York municipalities have until the end of the year to decide whether to opt out and reject recreational dispensaries. iStock photo

To some extent this wait-and-see approach is driven by the fact that the MRTA regulations are still being crafted. The Office of Cannabis Management created under the law will regulate the recreational and existing medical marijuana programs. The office will be overseen by a five-member Cannabis Control Board. Three members of that board will be appointed by the governor, while the Senate and Assembly will each appoint one member. An advisory board made up of 13 members—six appointed by the legislature and seven appointed by the governor—will provide additional guidance. It is expected that retail adult-use recreational sales will not likely happen for at least 18 months.

The Cannabis Control Board will determine the appropriate number and placement of adult-use dispensaries. How many of those will end up in the Adirondack Park remains to be seen. Currently Curaleaf, one of the largest cannabis companies in the world, has a medical dispensary in Plattsburgh. The company is interested in expanding its presence in New York State, but the exact locations are unknown, according to Patrik Jonsson, regional president of the Northeast. Jonsson oversees the company’s operations in Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Vermont.

“We believe New York will be one of the top five or three (cannabis use) states in the country based on sheer population and tourism. And that’s not just for New York City but for other parts of New York too,” Jonsson says.

“We forecast 20,000-30,000 jobs being added as a result in this industry,” he adds, noting this figure does not include support and ancillary services, which can provide additional employment options. “We’ve seen that in other states. There’s a lot of opportunity all around.”

The social and economic equity program built into the new law could help the Park at least partially. Aimed at helping individuals disproportionately impacted by cannabis enforcement, the program has a goal of having 50% of licenses go to minority or women-owned businesses as well as those owned by distressed farmers or service-disabled veterans.

Residents in Chestertown already know the potential economic benefits of having a cannabis business in town. Etain, one of ten medical marijuana growers and processors in New York, has employed 30 people at its growing and production facility for a few years. Now it plans to expand its Chestertown production plant to include a greenhouse and warehouse. Town Supervisor Craig Leggett calls the expansion welcome news. “We’re a mature community,” he says, noting Etain plans to add 15 more full-time employees with the expansion. “There’s not a lot of job growth going on. With a small rural population where a large employer would have 12 employees, this is very good.”

Leggett understands, though, why some town officials and park residents are reluctant to embrace hosting a dispensary or on-site consumption site such as a spa. “There are always concerns about having a cannabis dispensary in town. Who would come there?” he says. “You don’t want to aid and abet bad behavior or the overuse of drugs because they’re so easily available.”

Jim McKenna of ROOST.Photo by Mike Lynch

“I don’t think we’ll be starting a marijuana campaign for the Adirondacks.”

Jim McKenna, Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism

And yet the need to fill the empty Main Street storefronts plaguing so many Adirondack towns remains a park-wide concern. “When you look at our downtowns, so many have vacant storefronts. Every community has that,” Leggett says.

Debating the addition of a dispensary, however, is often a complicated community discussion. “What is next to the dispensary? A tattoo parlor or a gift shop?” Leggett says. “Those are the questions community people have and are concerned about.”

A former Colorado resident, Leggett has seen firsthand how dispensaries can be integrated in a town. He visits family who live in a Colorado town about the size of Glens Falls. “You see how the dispensaries fit in,” he says. “You have enough commercial activities so the dispensaries fit in.”

Regardless of which park towns decide to allow cannabis facilities, the likely reality is that the park will only get a few dispensaries. The Cannabis Control Board will determine the appropriate number and placement of adult-use cannabis dispensaries. Criteria will include population density as well as equity concerns per the law.

Jim McKenna of ROOST thinks the equity program could help the ADKs. “It could offer avenues for real diversity for our region,” he says.

A more likely way for the Adirondack Park to benefit from cannabis legalization is via tourism. Tourism annually brings in $2 billion, according to McKenna.

 A look at Colorado, which legalized cannabis in 2012, shows the potential for the park. Like the Adirondacks, Colorado is a mecca for outdoor activities. According to one study, an additional 120,000 hotel rooms were rented monthly once tourists in Colorado could purchase marijuana legally.

“Cannabis promotes creativity and communication. It can complement experiences,” says Brian Applegarth, founder of Cannabis Travel Association International. “That’s how I see cannabis expanding in travel.”

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Studies show that cannabis-motivated travelers are 29% of the active travel audience in the U.S. “These people are motivated by the ability of finding cannabis related activities,” Applegarth says, noting they are luxury travelers, food and wine enthusiasts, and outdoor activities enthusiasts. “When you look at the top descriptions of these travelers, you see an appetite to be in nature while using cannabis or experiencing cannabis,” Applegarth says. “That speaks to the potential for the park.”

“Nature is the best pairing for cannabis, nature being pure and natural and authentic,” he adds. “The way cannabis enhances nature is a match made in heaven.”

Maybe so, but in the meantime McKenna and other officials need more information. “I don’t think we’ll be starting a marijuana campaign for the Adirondacks,” McKenna says. “I don’t see that in our future at this point in time.”