New York is Legalizing Pot but What Does That Mean for Urban Planners?

eniola "oj" oshiafi
Advanced Reporting: The City
5 min readFeb 21, 2022

An expert in land use regulation and the legal cannabis industry outlines the problems urban planners are bound to face as recreational cannabis becomes legal in New York.

Last week, the New York Senate and Assembly approved a bill to dispense provisional cannabis cultivator and processor licenses. The bill is now headed to the governor’s desk. This is a huge step in the establishment of a legal cannabis industry that is expected to launch later this year.

This comes after 47 percent of New York municipalities opted out of the bill that legalizes the recreational use and sale of marijuana that then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law last summer. While the state’s largest and most populous cities, including New York, Buffalo, Yonkers, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany, have all opted into the legal cannabis market, suburban areas, including most of Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk counties have opted out.

With this bill on its way to becoming law, there will be profound effects on urban planning initiatives of the New York cities that have opted in. Alan Weinstein, Professor Emeritus of Law and Urban Studies at Cleveland State University, Ohio, has been providing consulting services to local governments on land use regulation for the past 42 years and researching the cannabis industry since 2017. He spoke of the effect this burgeoning legal cannabis industry will have on urban planning in New York.

What issues have risen in urban planning with the widespread legalization of the cannabis industry?

I would argue that there are two sets of issues that planners should be looking at: land use regulation concerns and public welfare issues. I definitely think some are more legitimate than others. One public welfare problem with marijuana cultivation is odor but you know if you think about other large-scale agricultural businesses, like livestock raising, you get odor issues there that planters need to deal with. Therefore, it’s not so different.

I would argue another set of public welfare issues go to the fact that many individuals view marijuana retail as an undesirable business, much in the same way that they view the adult entertainment business. The approach that states and local governments have taken to marijuana businesses actually is quite similar to the approach that they’ve taken to regulating adult entertainment businesses. For example, there are restrictions on hours of operation. Also, most states that have legalized marijuana have specified location restrictions for their businesses, such as they have to be “X” feet away from other specified types of land uses like educational institutions, daycares, churches, libraries, etc. So it’s a land-use regulatory scheme that looks, very much like the one in place for adult entertainment businesses.

The parallel you’re drawing between cannabis and adult entertainment businesses is definitely interesting. How else are the regulations controlling these two industries common?

Due to marijuana remaining illegal at the federal level, it still remains, to a large degree, a cash business just like adult entertainment businesses. You know men who frequent those businesses may not want to leave a paper trail so they are likely to use cash and it becomes more cash-intensive. Whenever you have a business that deals extensively with cash transactions, you’ve got concerns about the security of the business and safety issues because it provides opportunities for theft and other types of crimes so planners really need to be concerned about that. That’s why you have things like lighting requirements, alarm requirements, and sometimes enhanced security requirements.

While we’re on the topic of safety, there is little evidence that the areas that have cannabis dispensaries have higher crime rates than other types of retail establishments, but the rumors about it persist. Why do you think that is?

I have not seen any statistical analysis of the association of cannabis businesses with a rise in crime. That said, there are statistical analyses of the association of adult entertainment businesses with crime which raises similar kinds of issues about cash. Criminals see cash-intensive businesses as available targets so I think part of what’s going on is that we’ve got these statistics about adult entertainment businesses and cash and criminal activity so since a lot of cannabis retail businesses are cash-intensive, people believe it’s the same thing. Rather than saying there are rumors about the association of crime with marijuana businesses, I think what’s going on is that individuals and maybe even local officials are analogizing from the situation with adult entertainment businesses to marijuana and the analogy really is not apt.

How can we expect New York cities to treat the cannabis industry in terms of zoning, specifically regarding spatial distribution?

Things are varied from state to state depending on the underlying statutory approach to marijuana businesses. Also, the concentration issue is usually addressed by the local governments’ regulations of cannabis businesses. For example in Ohio, because there were so few licenses available and the licensing scheme allowed only “X” number of dispensaries within particular geographical areas, they were spread throughout the state. In contrast, you have Colorado which didn’t have any limits on the number of licenses so Colorado has had to deal with issues of clustering, so it varies from state to state.

It is clear that local governments are doing more to prevent saturation or clustering of cannabis businesses than they are with other retail industries. Why do you think so?

I think the concern is that the concentration of cannabis businesses changes the perceptions about the quality of the neighborhood. The neighborhood could be perceived as being affected negatively by a concentration of cannabis businesses and so, the idea is ‘let’s spread them out.’

The most recent bill passed by the New York Senate and Assembly earmarks 40 percent of revenue generated by the sale of cannabis to predominantly minority communities. This seems like a good start to promoting equity. How else do you think New York can promote social equity with the way they regulate the cannabis industry?

One thing is to first off ensure that the state regulations of employees of cannabis businesses do not exclude those who were harmed by the war on drugs. A lot of states have said, well, if you have a felony conviction for marijuana then you’re barred from employment in the business, and perhaps if a weapon was used as part of the felony maybe, there might be some justification for that. Outside of that, I don’t think there is justification, and even where a weapon was used, there probably should be a time limit; not felons being barred for a lifetime. So making sure that the employment side of the industry is open to the individuals who have convictions for marijuana-related crimes.

The next is having supportive job training programs that are open and amply available for individuals from communities of color that were affected negatively by the war on drugs to encourage entrepreneurs from those communities to enter the marijuana industry. A lot of times there are enormous capital requirements so states need to have programs that make access to capital available for communities of color so that they have access to capital outside of normal channels.

In my view, it really is important that when dealing with marijuana businesses, we should be regulating them with an eye to addressing the social equity concerns that the war on drugs brought up.