Effort underway to overturn Sweden law blocking marijuana dispensaries, lounges
The Sweden Town Board has spoken, and it doesn’t want cannabis dispensaries and lounges within its borders for the time being. But opponents of the move have launched an effort to force a public referendum on the measure.
The state laws that legalized adult possession and consumption of cannabis, and that provide a framework to establish legal sales in the state, also allow towns, villages, and cities in New York to opt out of hosting dispensaries and lounges. That’s what Sweden officials did on Nov. 9.
But a cannabis industry executive and consultant who owns a potential dispensary, as well as a municipal and land-use attorney from Irondequoit, are working with Sweden residents to pass petitions to hold a referendum on the town taking advantage of the opt-out law.
“I want to be able to do it in my own backyard and bring this industry to New York — bringing safe access, education, entrepreneurial opportunities. And then obviously there's a lot of tax revenue that comes with it as well,” said Karen Tobin, a resident of nearby Kendall, Orleans County.
In September, Tobin and her business partner bought the former Citizens Bank building at the corner of Route 31 and Route 19 with hopes of turning it into a dispensary. Sweden’s new law would prevent her from carrying out that plan.
Permissive referendum, which is a mechanism established under state law, provides a direct way for people to challenge laws enacted by their local governments. To trigger the referendum, a petition bearing a number of signatures equal to 10 percent of the ballots cast for governor by Sweden voters in the last gubernatorial election must be submitted to the town clerk. That amounts to 253 signatures, said Rachel Partington, a municipal and land use attorney from Irondequoit who is helping Tobin with the referendum effort.
“Really, the goal of this is to put this up for a public vote,” Partington said. “People can make their voices heard there. This is something where I think it makes sense to have the public involved.”
In Watertown and the Syracuse suburb of Manlius, petitions to hold a referendum on local opt-out laws were filed but rejected. To date, there have been no permissive referendums on cannabis opt-out measures, though some central New York villages held preemptive votes.
Sweden officials, like their counterparts in many communities across New York, explained that they opted the town out of dispensaries and lounges because they first want to see what the state’s rules would be for both kinds of operations. The state hasn’t yet published or implemented regulations for recreational marijuana dispensaries, so there are no licensed recreational cannabis businesses in New York as of now.
“The state is asking towns to make a decision on a drastic and significant piece of legislation, but has yet to provide most of the important details — in the form of the necessary regulations,” Supervisor Kevin Johnson wrote in an email responding to questions from CITY. “It is another typical cram-down from Albany.”
Sweden is not the only Monroe County community to opt out of dispensaries and lounges.
Gates officials passed a measure blocking both kinds of establishments in the town. Village of Pittsford officials have set a public hearing for 7 p.m. Dec. 14 on their proposed opt out law, but they’ve been clear that they plan to set a referendum on the measure. Partington explained that villages have the ability to do that but towns and cities do not.
Other local communities have been clear that they welcome cannabis businesses. During a public meeting, Irondequoit Town Board members affirmed that they’d welcome dispensaries and lounges in the town. As mayor of Rochester, Lovely Warren was adamant not only about the legalization of marijuana, but also the economic potential the new industry holds for the city.
The Sweden site would be one of three high-end cannabis dispensaries that Tobin aspires to own in New York — she also wants to open locations in Syracuse and Manhattan.
“If it doesn’t end up in the town of Sweden, I’ll pick another town,” Tobin said.
Tobin is no newcomer to the cannabis industry, which she entered seven years ago after working in regulatory compliance, largely in the financial services sector. She made the jump after noticing that the legal cannabis markets emerging in states were doing so under regulatory regimes similar to those governing the finance sector.
She’s worked for cannabis companies across the country in both executive and compliance capacities. Tobin currently manages a 52-acre cultivation site in California and previously built a seed-to-sale tech platform for cannabis companies. She figured that experience would give her an edge once New York legalized marijuana.
“I've done work in every state that is online for either medical or adult use over the last seven years,” Tobin said.
The round, glass enclosed former Citizens Bank that Tobin bought was built in 1974 and was of an architectural style popular of the era — round buildings have been said to symbolize optimism. The building still has its vault, which could come in handy for a business that tends to deal in cash and stores a valuable product.
A sign in front of the building reads “Town of Sweden” on its southern-facing side and “Village of Brockport” on the northern-facing side, a subtle reminder that the village line is a block or so north of the intersection.
It is also a reminder that even if Sweden’s opt-out holds, the village of Brockport has yet to decide whether it will allow dispensaries or lounges.
The village board will likely vote on the matter during its Dec. 6 meeting, according to Mayor Margay Blackman. She supports dispensaries in the village, but expects the board to be divided.
Tobin and Partington know they have a lot of work ahead of them. But both see the potential for marijuana businesses to provide a financial boost to the communities in which they locate. It’s not just about tax revenue, but about opportunities for new and existing businesses, Tobin said.
“You get bumps and bruises when you go first,” Tobin said.