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In early 2021, New York State legalized recreational cannabis by legislative vote and set in motion what is expected to be one of the country’s biggest legal weed markets. While New York cannabis consumers have been legally allowed to spark up on sidewalks and rooftops for more than half a year, Empire State regulators are still putting together the proper agencies and oversight to lay down rules for the incoming industry. But before the green rush is set in stone, hundreds of city and town leaders are shying away from the entire marketplace before the first seed even hits the dirt.

According to a new report from the Associated Press, over 400 municipalities in New York State have officially opted out of licensing dispensaries, consumption lounges, or both in their cities and towns. New York municipalities have until December 31st to officially decide whether to welcome legal weed businesses or not, with many of the state’s 1,517 cities and towns still undecided.

“We are concerned that dispensaries in our neighborhoods will normalize the use of marijuana even further than it already is,” Anita Seefried-Brown of the Watertown, New York-based Alliance for Better Communities told the AP.

This same process of municipalities opting-in or opting-out of the cannabis business has been a frequent facet of early legalization across US states, with many states now situated with hundreds of miles of dry cities and towns between dispensary access points. Those same access droughts could soon develop in New York State, where many local leaders are pointing to regulations that lock in at least some cannabis-friendly zoning in any municipality that does not opt-out before the end of year deadline.

“Municipalities that opt-out before the end of the year can change their mind at any time and rejoin the marijuana retail market, but any town, city, or village that initially permits dispensaries and/or consumption lounges cannot change their mind after the deadline. Under current law, once a municipality is in, they are in permanently,” policy researchers at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, which has been tracking municipal decisions on the topic, wrote. “Those municipalities that choose to not opt-out can still use zoning and other reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions to regulate where dispensaries and/or consumption lounges are located.”

That difference between a reversible opt-out and an iron-clad opt-in choice was the main reason behind the town board of Chautauqua in rural western New York’s decision to ban cannabis businesses – at least for now.

“The fact that they haven’t really published any rules or laws on it yet, it made us kind of nervous that, you know, what are we opting into? We don’t know yet,” Chautauqua Supervisor Donald Emhardt told the AP.

Cannabis proponents at the highest level of New York’s legislature have said that the huge number of opt-out decisions was somewhat expected because those actions can be reversed, but that it is still troubling considering other states’ experience with the municipal approval process.

“Absolutely. I did anticipate that there would be some municipalities and elected representatives who, one, don’t understand the plant, and two, don’t understand it to the extent that their constituencies may understand it,” New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes told State of Politics, also noting that “There is an option for constituents, should they choose, to do a citizen referendum to change the thought-processes of their local representatives.”

In nearby New Jersey, which is on the precipice of launching its own statewide cannabis market, 70% of local municipalities have opted out of the cannabis industry entirely. In California, often regarded as the country’s cannabis capital, another 70% of cities and towns banned cannabis dispensaries. Keeping with California’s cannabis-friendly reputation, though, the Golden State has supplemented those local laws with a statewide mandate that allows door-to-door cannabis delivery across the state, no matter what local regulations say about dispensaries.

“We get people interested in those areas,” Ray Markland, manager of EcoCann, a dispensary in Eureka, CA, said back in 2019 when the California delivery law was solidified. “It’s good for customers who are physically challenged and aren’t able to make it out to us to get our products. … It’s a positive move showing validity to the cannabis industry and to cannabis as an everyday consumable product and not something to be ashamed to use.”

Because the Empire State hasn’t crafted any regulations for cannabis business – or even formed the board that will be tasked with crafting those regulations, for that matter – we still do not know if New York will allow cannabis deliveries or find another way for residents of opt-out municipalities to access legal cannabis. One thing is for certain, though, when New York State does roll out dispensaries and legal weed sales, there will be plenty of dry cities with no dispensaries bringing in tax revenue or creating local jobs – at least for the time being.