WRITTEN BY TYLER A. MCNEIL | PHOTOS PROVIDED
Awaiting clarity from regulators before moving forward, stakeholders crouch at the starting gate of Saratoga County’s newly legal recreational pot industry.
Among those in the lineup is Toadflax Nursery owner Rich Morris.
He’s been a cannabis enthusiast since treating chronic back pains with a plant-derived oil four years ago. Cannabis, Morris maintained, holds economic, medical, and therapeutic benefits long disregarded under prohibition.
“Anybody that has ever had an opinion of negativity like it’s the devil’s lettuce or devil’s cabbage — man, I’ll tell you there’s a lot of different strains of cabbage,” Morris said. “And not all of them have psychotropic effects and there are times you do need a little THC.”
Morris currently grows hemp, a type of cannabis low in high-inducing THC chemicals and rich in therapeutic CBD compounds. At press time, he awaits authorization from the state Office of Cannabis Management to grow crops with THC levels 0.3% and above.
So far, 244 producers and counting statewide, 7 of which operate in Saratoga County, have been licensed to grow recreational-use marijuana.
Recreational cannabis became legal for adults 21 years and up under the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act of 2021. State regulators have since developed pathways for authorized hemp producers and retailers previously convicted of pot-related offenses to get dibs on the young market — as well as packaging, labeling, and testing standards.
Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus has been in talks with roughly a dozen firms interested in entering the local pot arena.
“The challenge right now is that New York is proceeding down a very different path as it looks to create this new industry, and the fact that very few of the rules are known is dramatically limiting the willingness of investors to act until more is known,” Shimkus said.
OCM expects a broader slate of regulations and licensing proposals likely go out for public comment before the end of 2022, a spokesperson told Saratoga Business Report.
By the time most applications are approved, Morris expects ample crops ready for the market.
“You’re gonna have all these farmers with some cannabis that is looking for a home, whether it’s through the process of making products, whether it’s to retail dispensaries, selling flour, or other stuff,” Morris said.
Albany put the kibosh on cannabis in 1927. The ban eroded with the passage of medical-use legislation eight years ago, decriminalization three years ago, and eventually recreational legalization.
Federal prohibition remains, albeit loosened. The federal farm bill’s reclassification of hemp as a legal substance separate from cannabis in 2018 resulted in a brief CBD boom.
The local landscape has shifted as a result of such policy changes. There’s a medical dispensary in Halfmoon; growers and processors dot the map; roadside shops offer CBD tinctures, vapors, edibles, and topicals.
As soon as regular dispensary license applications are available, Green Witch Vape of Ballston Spa and Washington County plans to enter the dispensary business. OCM has only opened up retail licensing applications to owners previously convicted of marijuana-related offenses.
Customers are itching for pot, insisted manager Tom Urkevich. Using a legal loophole in the farm bill, the shop can sell hemp-derived delta-9 THC edibles as a cheap alternative to dispensary-grade edibles.
But patrons still ask staff about recreational-use product availability.
“I’m pretty up to date on most info coming out,” Urkevich said. “Because as I said, we get people who ask every day.”
Asking rec-state confreres frequently for insight, Shimkus believes the industry could reign in multi-million capital investments and hundreds of jobs.
Five-year market state projections range between $3 to $6 billion, positioning New York second to California. Job forecasts teeter between 30k and 60k within the next few years.
Twin Leaf Farms in Greenfield wrote in a media statement in late 2021 that they hoped to fill 100 jobs if approved to cultivate cannabis. “Friends” executive producer Kevin and his wife Claudia Bright own the land.
Greenfield Supervisor Kevin Veitch hopes cannabis opportunities will help the rural town.
“We have a lot of farmers up here that are struggling,” Veitch said. “So this could be an opportunity for our farmers to turn their farms around and help them out financially.”
Like Morris, several growers have already embraced hemp, including Saratoga Hemp Farm in Ballston, Adirondack Hemp Co. in Stillwater, and Theory Gardens in Milton.
“We have signs in the driveway [reading] ‘We’re retired; Dan does hemp,’” said farmer Dan Dygert of Leisuretime Greenhouses. “People drive around the signs and are walking through greenhouses looking for plants.”
After decades of selling hundreds of plants off a West Charlton property, the Dygert family nursery shuttered to the public in 2019. Unknowing visitors from time to time still stop by Leisuretime Greenhouses off state Highway 67 in West Charlton.
Dygert gained momentum early after turning his experience tending another grower’s hemp into a multi-field venture. Then the value plunged. Returns didn’t shore up from the supply chain.
The federally unregulated and over-saturated market crashed in the early 2020s, resulting. The industry shrunk 80% from its peak in 2019. Several major CBD firms declared bankruptcy.
“I thought there was money in it, which was, you know, a lie,” Dygert said.
“We knew it was going to be around and we’ve been positioning ourselves for when it’s time,” Morris said.
Toadflax’s garden retail and landscaping service earnings cushioned some of the blow. Both farmers are now looking to make up losses in the recreational business while storing away hemp biomass until industry growing pains subside.
Industry stakeholders also took losses last November when New York banned smokable hemp and products containing delta-8. Federal agencies have cautioned “serious health risks” attached to the intoxicating product.
Delta-8 was popular at Green Witch Vape.
“So I had a lot of my older customers that really liked it because it helped with their arthritis, it would help them sleep at night, and they didn’t get super high from it as they would with regular marijuana,” Urkevich said.
Leisuretime Greenhouses, a hemp farm in West Charlton
It’s not the head shop industry’s first rodeo. New York’s state flavored vape ban, protested by stakeholders aplenty across the state, caused Pale Horse Vapors in Milton to close a Troy shop and recenter business exclusively towards CBD.
Partners Jason Woods and Mike Davidson initially launched now-Leaf & Fog in 2015 in hopes of inching closer into the dispensary market. With regular licensing still undetermined and lost investments within memory, Woods is anxious.
“We try to be as calculated and educated as we can about it, right?” Woods said about the recreational cannabis market. “But throwing money into this industry is terrifying right now because it could all go out the door tomorrow.”
Woods is among “a few” business owners who have asked the abutting town of Ballston about potential dispensary sites. Nothing has moved forward, according to Supervisor Eric Connelly.
The state granted all municipalities a brief window to opt out of recreational-use pot sales following legalization. Basing its final vote on survey data of more than 900 residents, Ballston opt-out cannabis lounges (37% approval), but allowed shops (90% approval).
Retail sites must be at least 200 feet from a worship house and 500 feet from a school per state guidelines.
“We would need to tighten this up,” Connelly said about state regulations. “I’d like to be at least a mile away from any school just so that it’s not walkable or very walkable.”
Under this direction, the Curtis Industrial Park owned by the eponymous lumber store chain family off state Highway 67 would be “fair game” for cannabis sellers, Connelly added. Park officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Shimkus pointed to resort communities teeming with craft booze and cigar establishments as ideal recreational-use hotspots. With Lake George and Bolton Landing opting out, Saratoga Springs is one of the most prominent Greater Capital Region sites of the like.
“No doubt the businesses that have reached out to me about locating in Saratoga County understand this and are actively considering sites in places like Saratoga Springs, in particular,” the chamber president said.
So far, only one developer has publicly proposed dispensary plans in Saratoga Springs. An attorney for Baruch Aronson at an April zoning board meeting boasted that undeveloped land abutting Weibel Plaza would be far beyond the radius of dispensary-free zones.
The application is still pending.
Mayor Ron Kim is expected to soon launch a committee dedicated to zoning adult-cannabis retail and consumption sites.
“We believe that the sale of adult use cannabis, in the appropriate areas, will be a significant financial impact to the City of Saratoga Springs,” Kim said.
The city will collect 3% from pot sales, the county 1%, and the state 9%.
When asked if W.J. Grande Industrial Park would be open to allowing cannabis-based firms, property co-owner John Munter said a dispensary probably wouldn’t work, but a production facility could be on the table might it comply with zoning.
Saratoga Spring-based Terrace Corporation was the first in the county to receive a conditional license. Massachusetts dispensary founder and former medical marijuana firm executive Scot Trifilo owns the operation, OCM records show. He declined to comment.
Cerrone Builders proposed building a cannabis growing and processing facility in the county’s far north last fall. Amid community concerns, the proposed site in Moreau shifted from Route 9 to Bluebird Road.
Zoning board officials are currently waiting for the developer to submit a preliminary review.
In the same town, the home of Toadflax Nursery, local officials opted out of retail and consumption sites last year. Opt-outs can reverse course at any time, but not vice versa.
Of more than 1,500 municipalities across the state, 34% opted out of cannabis sales before the Dec. 31, 2020 deadline. In Saratoga County, 8 municipalities partially opted out, 9 fully opted in, and 13 fully opted out.
A spate of local opt-outs linked their decision to lackluster OCM guidance, unlikely financial incentives, fear of crime, or moral boundaries.
Edinburg was one of three Sacandaga Lake towns to opt out. From community outreach, Supervisor Jean Raymond insisted there were concerns over stoned visitors becoming unruly. She added that the industry probably couldn’t find a home there either way.
“The business community if you will or the potential business community in the lake towns — it’s underwater,” Raymond said, referring to the artificial lake created by the Conklingville Dam in 1929. “It went away when the lake arrived.”
Victory village Clerk Maureen Lewsey told Saratoga Business Report that the bedroom community’s board opted out because “any revenue that would have been generated would have been insignificant.”
Municipalities that took no action before the deadline were automatically opted-in, including Round Lake. Mayor Gary Putnam of Round Lake called the village’s automatic thumbs up a moot point because of zoning limitations.
Meanwhile, Supervisor Phil Barrett hopes to keep Clifton Park’s out of marijuana sales as long as he remains in office. Critics decried the board’s position as regressive and void of economic interests.
Commercial properties totaling $5.5 billion, the Northway-seated suburb is a major economic hub. Wilton’s leadership, too, backed out marijuana sales for moral reasons despite heavy interstate and state highway traffic flowing through the town.
Local officials adverse to the recreational-use crop haven’t pitted much of a fight against pot cultivation. Can they? New York’s Right-to-Farm law communities in New York protect growers exclusively from private complaints. Municipalities can only take action against farming operations proven to state regulators as a major threat to public health or safety.
Ed Kinowski, supervisor for the pot retail-legal town of Stillwater, believes authority could be exercised in the event a faulty grower relies on heavily mechanized operations for cultivation.
“There’s a lot of new stuff that just isn’t out there and it’s and that’s going to be left to the planning boards and the towns to make decisions on,” Kinowski said.
Manager Victor Quinones interacting with customers at Leaf & Fog on Doubleday Avenue in Milton.