Marijuana for sale at liquor stores? An intoxicating idea

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Booze and bud under the same roof?

Gary Wartels — owner of Skyview Wine & Spirits — claims allowing businesses like his to also sell marijuana makes perfect sense.

“Marijuana should become a legalized, controlled and safely regulated substance in this state,” said Wartels, who is also the president of the North Riverdale Merchant and Business Association. “We’re missing out on millions and millions of tax dollars.”

If and when recreational weed becomes legal in the state, a pro-liquor store alliance Wartels belongs to — the Last Store on Main Street coalition, which also mounted a fight against legalizing the sale of wine in supermarkets around a decade ago — claims wine and liquor stores are the perfect outlet for legitimate pot sales. The coalition says its campaign aims to save mom-and-pop stores from going under once recreational marijuana becomes available in New York.

And marijuana sales are indeed a threat to wine and liquor sales — at least based on what happened in other states where pot has been legalized — said coalition founder Jeff Saunders.

In fact, between 2006 and 2015, counties located in medical marijuana states saw a nearly 15 percent drop in monthly alcohol sales, according to Forbes.

“New York should learn from the mistakes other states have made and work with trusted partners who are already regulated by the state,” Saunders said in a release, adding that wine and liquor stores often enable minority small business owners to earn a living.

“Their investments in the American dream should not be threatened by this new product when it can easily be a lifeline instead.”

While the state explores ways to legalize recreational cannabis —recently holding a series of public listening sessions to hear concerns and suggestions ahead of the next legislative session — Saunders’ group claims wine and liquor store owners already are asking for the right to bring those sales into their stores.

Given these merchants’ desire to sell both pot and liquor, the coalition says granting that right could be a “win-win” for a bedrock industry of the state’s main-street economies — often comprised of smaller, independent shops and retailers — and for the state itself.

 

Existing space

With more than 3,000 locations statewide, wine and liquor stores offer existing retail space with quick, cheap access to the market, the coalition said, meaning more tax revenue, sooner, for the state to invest in neighborhoods. Additionally, wine and liquor stores already operate under stringent regulations the coalition argues can easily be expanded to oversee marijuana retail.

Furthermore, wine and liquor store owners have a proven track record of ensuring only “responsible adults” buy their product, the coalition said. “That’s a commitment to safety and the law they’ll apply to marijuana sales, too.”

And it’s not as though recreational weed sales in liquor stores are unprecedented. The coalition pointed to what it deemed success stories in California and in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia — where experienced retailers have taken on marijuana sales “with ease.”

 

Highly regulated

Over the last two years, the state’s medical marijuana industry has struggled in part from hefty setup expenses and challenges associated with establishing a new, highly regulated industry, the coalition said — all of which has impeded its ability to generate tax revenue.

One plan the coalition supports involves expanding the mandate of medical marijuana license holders to include recreational sales and requiring those holders to partner with wine and liquor stores. This model, according to the advocates, would allow the state to quickly realize more than $400 million in tax revenue state officials predict could follow legalization.

 

Good location

Furthermore, the state health department’s guidelines for where to locate recreational marijuana stores would essentially put them right next to where wine and liquor stores are now. “So why not just merge them from the start?” asked Stefan Kalogridis, president of the New York State Liquor Store Association and coalition member, in a statement.

Just as state liquor laws keep tight control of wine sales at liquor stores, Kalogridis argues the state should do the same with marijuana, rather than leaving it in the hands of new, untested retailers.

Wartels, meanwhile, compared marijuana’s current illegality to alcohol during Prohibition — the period in American history brought about by the ratification of the 18th Amendment banning the manufacture, transportation and sale of booze. That law ultimately led to a slew of unintended consequences, including deaths from people drinking what Time described as “poison hooch,” increased crime, eliminating thousands of jobs and giving rise to corruption on federal, state and local levels.

But even if a lot of that can be eliminated through legalized marijuana, Wartels still recognizes economic implications.

“I do think that as legalization comes down the pike, my business, no pun intended, is going to take a hit,” Wartels said. Allowing these stores to cash in rather than excluding them from the new market could help offset a potentially crippling economic toll.

State Conservative Party chairman Michael Long, however — a former liquor store owner himself — not only opposes the coalition’s proposal, but selling marijuana in general. He called it “a very poor choice, for politicians, for elected officials to raise money and put many, many young people on a pathway to darkness.”

Marijuana, Long added, is “a gateway drug.”

“I just think it’s the wrong path for society,” he said. “A very sad path. Someone ought to think about the lives that are going to be destroyed.”

But the momentum to legalize marijuana might already be past the point of no-return, especially as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office is set to possibly advance a formal proposal by early next year, according to the governor’s spokesman, Tyrone Stevens.

“This stuff is out there,” Wartels said. “It’s widely available. Regulate it. That’s what we do with alcohol — manage the dark side.”

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