A smoke shop in the Financial District promotes its cannabis-related products, Dec. 6, 2022.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
New York’s first legal cannabis shops are gearing up for opening, but community boards that are supposed to have input are getting mixed messages.
Some boards are hearing from newly licensed dispensary operators looking to open in their neighborhoods, under a procedure outlined in the law legalizing recreational cannabis — while others are hearing only crickets.
As THE CITY reported this week, Community Board 10 in Harlem had heard nothing about a storefront dispensary set to come to West 125th Street, when state officials announced a lease had been signed — the first in the state.
Meanwhile, Manhattan Community Board 2 in Greenwich Village will be holding a hearing Monday night on applications from two nonprofit groups, Housing Works and the Doe Fund, as reported by NY Cannabis Insider.
Still other boards have an inkling that pot product retail stores may be coming to their neighborhoods, but haven’t a clue how much notice they’re due, or if they’ll even have a chance to weigh in, as they already do for liquor licenses and other local matters.
“From my position of not knowing everything that’s happening, it’s hard for me to see that this is gonna happen all of a sudden in three weeks,” said Morry Galonoy, the volunteer chair of Queens Community Board 2, which covers Sunnyside, Woodside and Long Island City. “It seems really, really ambitious. But maybe I’m just too in the dark.”
Community boards are made up of local volunteers who live or do business within their bounds. The state’s law legalizing the sale of pot products makes the boards advisors on whether the state Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) should approve a dispensary location. Board members may have insight into how to apply restrictions, such as a ban on dispensaries within 500 feet of a school or 200 feet from a house of worship.
But procedural details that are routine with liquor and other approvals, such as deadlines and communications with relevant government agencies, remain a mystery when it comes to pot store locations, community board members say.
A spokesperson for OCM, Aaron Ghitelman, said in a statement to THE CITY: “The Office is collaborating with municipal bodies, including in New York City, to make sure their communities will be heard.”
The first 175 licenses issued by the state fall into two categories, with 150 of them being awarded to “justice system involved” applicants who have cannabis convictions or a close relative with them, and up to 25 nonprofit groups.
State regulations say license-holders will have to submit a notification form to the community board “in which the premises is located” — and they must do so no less than 30 days before filing an application for full licensure.
Two young people pass a joint one day this fall in Washington Square Park.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY
But many community boards aren’t clear on when they would actually receive notification.
Whereas nonprofit dispensaries are choosing their own locations, and leasing and building out their own storefronts, the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York plays a central role in doing all of that for justice-involved licensees. And that could cut community boards out of the loop, because the law includes an exemption to community board review for properties leased by a state agency.
The Dormitory Authority has not responded to questions from THE CITY about whether that exclusion applies to the West 125th Street storefront or others from the justice-involved applicants.
Contacted Dec. 7 after the state announced the West 125th Street site, Manhattan Community Board 10 District Manager Shatic Mitchell said he had not known about the planned retail space, located in a former Children’s Place store across from the landmark Apollo Theater, prior to a call from THE CITY.
In its article, NY Cannabis Insider determined that community boards in Queens have yet to receive any notification from new cannabis licensees to open up stores, even after four dispensary licenses have been approved for the borough in addition to two issued to Queens-based nonprofits.
One of these nonprofits, the Long Island City-based group Urban Upbound, said they are still in the process of scouting out retail sites located within Queens community boards 1 or 2. But both boards say they have not yet received guidance on how to process notification forms that they may receive from applicants.
Galonoy was unaware a community board and local government form existed until THE CITY showed him a copy. The forms provide little information about applicants, giving boards scant information to go by.
“There’s not much on there,” Galonoy said as he reviewed the blank form. “It seems very, very broad.”
Queens CB1 District Manager Florence Koulouris, who typically screens liquor license notification forms, is also puzzled by what she is supposed to do with the cannabis applications.
“What are we reviewing? Are we looking at backgrounds? Are we sending it to the police department?” Koulouris said. “You know, they made these forms, they posted them on the website, but we have not received any instructions on them. We have not received any guidance as of yet.”
The State Liquor Authority usually assigns a representative to correspond with community board district managers, as do city agencies. And while OCM has an external affairs team that’s supposed to serve as a point of contact for municipal leaders, Koulouris said CB1 hasn’t had a representative to connect it with the agency, leaving more questions than answers about the community board’s role in the process.
Once an applicant submits a notification form, the local community board will then have 30 days under the law to express an opinion to the Cannabis Control Board.
“That’s not really a lot of time,” said Galonoy, noting that community boards meet only once a month. “Usually, how it works is that they come before a committee, and then the committee reviews the application and asks questions, and then it goes to the full board. Thirty days is not a lot of time to make all that happen.”
Koulouris also said community boards should have 45 to 60 days to consider these applications, especially considering that boards go on a hiatus every summer from July to August.
“Don’t forget — additionally, now we will be doing liquor license and cannabis license. So there will be more work to be done,” Koulouris said. “Doing 60 days is beneficial to all parties.”
Koulouris also raised questions about whether the OCM will defer to community boards for license renewals, as is the case with the State Liquor Authority. And she noted that the paperwork does not require the level of information needed — such as landlord contact information and types of products sold — for proper engagement and enforcement.
“Community boards are the groundwork for the city of New York. We are the eyes and ears on the ground. We know the things that most other people don’t know,” Koulouris said. “And, you know, a lot of times we need more guidance than what we’re receiving in order to help us to do a better job for the city of New York.”
Mar Fitzgerald, who chairs Manhattan Community Board 2’s cannabis licensing committee that will review two applications Monday, also said she’s had to take matters into her own hands — creating applicant questionnaires and review procedures for her committee from scratch, based on information she’s gathered from conferences, industry stakeholders, and forums her board has hosted over the last year.
“We are able to do it because we’re ready,” Fitzgerald said, noting that they “didn’t really get any guidance” from the city. “But this is particularly why a citywide uniform process would benefit us all.”
In the meantime, community board leaders elsewhere, like Koulouris, are stuck in limbo and scrambling to figure out their next steps.
“I’m asking what happens if two years down the road, we get a notice, and the person has been selling to minors? Is the community board’s comments going to matter? With the State Liquor Authority, I have a rep for Queens, and they will listen to us,” Koulouris said. “Is Cannabis going to listen? I don’t know yet.”
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