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The New York state Capitol in Albany

ALBANY — As a state lawmaker pushes to give communities another year to decide whether they want to allow marijuana shops, an upstate Native American tribe says it is poised to give cannabis licenses to retailers before the state gets around to it.

The Saint Regis Mohawk Indian Tribe says it is already taking applications for tribal licenses for cannabis businesses.

Elsewhere in New York, marijuana shops are not expected to open until mid-2022.

"Our community’s cannabis ordinance gives tribally licensed businesses a jump start," Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Chief Beverly Cook said. "But more importantly, it helps certify that the products being made available for sale have been tested and proven safe for consumers. Ensuring product safety is part of the Tribe’s effort to encourage Tribal members to participate in this new industry that will benefit the entire community."

The tribe operates a casino at its headquarters in Akwesasne, near Hogansburg, about 72 miles west of Plattsburgh.

Applicants for a tribal license can expect to get a decision back in about two weeks, according to Chief Michael Conners.

Revenue from pot sales are expected to support programs that assist Akwesasne residents with heating equipment repairs.

At the statehouse in Albany, meanwhile, Sen. George Borrello, R-Jamestown, is leading an effort to extend by one-year the period by which localities can decide to opt out of the marijuana program.

Under the current law enacted in March, municipalities that opt out by Dec. 31 can later decide to allow pot shops. But if they take no action by year's end, they won't be able to ban pot stores. County governments have no say over those local decisions. The key choices are in the hands of villages, towns and cities.

Borrello reasoned that the state government is already running six months behind the initial timetable for implementing a marijuana licensing system, with local governments having "zero information" from the state.

Although four appointments were made this month to the nascent state Cannabis Control Board, two vacancies remain to be filled.

Plattsburgh Mayor Christopher Rosenquest said there is no justification for slowing down the implementation of retail marijuana licenses.

"There has been so much discussion already on opting in or opting out that communities by now know the direction they want to go in," Rosenquest said.

He noted four companies interested in opening marijuana production facilities have been eyeing Plattsburgh as a potential site, with the low cost of electric power being a drawing card. An equal number of business people have signaled interest in opening cannabis stores in the city, he said.

"To say we don't want a retail location, I don't think that is the direction we are going to take," Rosenquest said.

In Troy, Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin said state leaders should consider Borrello's suggestion, and perhaps adopt a solution that allows communities that want pot shops to go forward, but extends the opt-out deadline.

He noted former Gov. Andrew Cuomo had vowed to personally visit states that allow cannabis stores, so New York would adopt the best practices instead of repeating mistakes made elsewhere. Cuomo never followed through on his stated plan, however.

Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, said he agrees adopting an extension, as Borrello proposes, would be a relief to municipalities as the Dec. 31 deadline looms.

"The state has done a poor job at getting this up and going," Tague said.

There are also ongoing public safety concerns that have yet to be addressed, said Delaware County Sheriff Craig DuMond.

Law enforcement agencies, he said, do not yet have an approved testing device to determine the level of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in a motorist suspected of impaired driving.

"The responsible thing to do now is to pump your brakes and do your due diligence," DuMond said.

Supporters of allowing the production and retail sale of recreational marijuana in New York project the industry will result in up to $350 million per year in new revenue for state coffers.

Critics say legalization will fuel the underground black market in pot.

McLaughlin said the current scheme deprives county governments of revenue even though their costs for providing mental health programs and other services are expected to increase with more people using a drug still banned by federal statutes.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhinews.com

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