WATERTOWN — It’s going to take a public referendum to determine whether pot shops will ever be allowed in the city.
As expected, the City Council on Monday night decided to opt out of the state’s marijuana law and agreed to keep marijuana dispensaries from opening up in the city.
But that came after a more-than 90-minute public hearing during which 19 out of 26 people supported the city allowing dispensaries and on-premise pot shops opening in Watertown.
Many of the people who spoke in favor of allowing them said they are prescribed for medical marijuana for health reasons and find it difficult to drive to medical marijuana dispensaries in Syracuse and Plattsburgh.
Some supporters also admitted they are recreational pot users, and it’s now legal since the state’s marijuana law went into effect on March 31. They argued that they are adults and have the right to make that decision.
Damien Morrow said he doesn’t understand why supporters needed to “tell their anecdotes” to convince the council not to opt out of the state law.
He told the story about his 24-year-old dying sister who needed medical marijuana during her last week of life, but the hospice facility had no legal means to give her the pot, so the doctor advised him to go on the street corner to buy some for her.
In trying to convince council to vote for dispensaries, Mr. Morrow said, “What you’re doing is wrong.”
LeRay Street resident Gem Roselle said she might try medical marijuana because she no longer knows how to battle depression and her anxiety.
Joanne Hughs, who owns a home on State Street, thinks young adults are going to end trying pot, so it’s safer to allow dispensaries to open because the marijuana products are so regulated.
It’s better than if they go out to street dealers to buy pot and not know what they end up getting, she said.
Flower Street resident James Shinolt, a father of three teens, is worried about the impact that pot shops would have on his children. He’s worried that his daughter who’s just learning to drive could be rear-ended or sideswiped by a driver who’s high.
Anita K. Seefried-Brown and Tammie Miller, both of the Alliance for Better Communities, offered council members a variety of reasons to opt out of the state law. They stressed that the city needs to protect children from getting involved in using pot.
Saying he agreed with people on both sides of the issue, Joseph Wessner, president of the Watertown Downtown Business Association, recommended that council opt out to see what kind of effect that the law will have on Watertown and other communities.
Some people think that dispensaries cause crime to increase and the black market to worsen.
In the end, council agreed, saying that the city could wait to see what happens. They can possibly vote later to allow dispensaries.
Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero reminded council members that some supporters wanted it go to the public for a vote.
“I think people for and against made a lot of good points,” she said.
According to the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, signed into law by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in March, cities, towns and villages can decide to opt out of allowing retail dispensaries, although they would have to forego those tax revenues generated by the marijuana establishments.
LaFargeville resident Marty Robinson, who advocates for the use of marijuana, has collected more than 1,500 signatures on an online petition in support of dispensaries.
But all of those efforts will go for naught, City Attorney Robert J. Slye said. First of all, it cannot be an online petition and the petition needed to wait until council took the action of opting out, he said.
Mr. Robbins said he’s confident he’ll get the necessary 593 signatures of city residents for the petition.
However, City Manager Kenneth A. Mix stressed that it’s most likely too late for the petition to be completed on the ballot this November.
The public referendum will probably have to take place in November 2022, he said.
If the city didn’t opt out, it would receive 3% of a 13% excise tax from the retail sale of marijuana in the city. The city has until Dec. 31 to officially opt out.
Other communities in the area, including the town of Watertown, are expected to opt out of the state law.
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