Massena mayor says NYS Office of Cannabis Management failing to help with illegal pot, tobacco shops

Posted 10/19/23

BY JEFF CHUDZINSKI North Country This Week MASSENA — Massena has been abandoned by the state of New York and Office of Cannabis Management (OCM), according to Mayor Greg Paquin. “We need OCM to …

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Massena mayor says NYS Office of Cannabis Management failing to help with illegal pot, tobacco shops


North Country This Week

MASSENA — Massena has been abandoned by the state of New York and Office of Cannabis Management (OCM), according to Mayor Greg Paquin.

“We need OCM to come here and work with us to shut these illegal operations down for good. OCM has the sole authority to do this and the infamous ‘Massena square mile’ does not exist. It has never and is not an obstacle for the state of New York to come here and work with us. It's my understanding that settlement of the land claims has been reached and that area was never part of any discussion,” Paquin said.

He said state officials and OCM have offered no guidance to the village of Massena and area police agencies regarding illicit pot shops in the “square mile,” a tract of land that some members of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe still contends as tribal territory.

However, county officials say that court rulings have upheld that the “square mile” is not tribal land.

Despite their take, marijuana dispensaries and tax-free tobacco shops have opened in the area, causing significant strife between business owners, local officials and state officials.

No penalties

An operation was carried out in June by the St. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office, State Police, Homeland Security and municipal police agencies, targeting shops that were known to have sold vapes, cartridges and marijuana to underage persons.

Seven shops were raided in the operation in June, including Famous A’s and THC Remedies in Massena, both of which are in the “square mile.”

Both shops opened again shortly after the raid, prompting village officials to seek assistance from state officials.

“They were open again not one day later,” Paquin said.

Though legislation was passed in the state budget bill earlier this year, giving OCM authority to close the shops, local officials have been left on the hook to handle the shops.

Recent code updates and state regulations allow for municipalities to fine illegal operations.

In the case of Massena, fines of $250 per day, per violation can be applied. Issuing those fines is one thing but collecting and taking action is another, village officials say.

But Code Enforcement Officer Aaron Hardy said the fine schedule is not the only deterrent.

In the case of shops who are in violation of village code, the new regulations set forth gives the village some means to seek legal recourse.

Silence from the state

To date, OCM and state officials have offered no support or advice, according to Paquin.

“In my mind, and in all honesty, we’ve been abandoned by New York State and OCM and it’s a disgrace. We’ll keep pounding away at it but it’s disheartening to say the least,” Paquin said.

Paquin detailed the numerous attempts he has made to contact and work with OCM, beginning with a zoom call on March 29, followed by an email. Subsequent emails were sent on July 31, Aug. 16, Aug. 29 and Sept. 18, all of which went unanswered, according to Paquin.

Village officials held a meeting with Village Attorney Matthew McArdle on Oct. 3 to discuss legal options, followed by a discussion with Jason Solomon, director of external affairs for OCM, on Oct. 11.

In the conversation, Paquin said Solomon suggested that patrons seeking marijuana would rather buy from a legal seller or distributor “where they know the product is coming from.”

“I respectfully said ‘well, if somebody can save 50 bucks on something, I got some news for you. It's not going to happen.’ So again, we'll continue to push and we'll start to explore other things,” Paquin said.

Paquin said he has yet to hear any response from Solomon since the conversation, which has prompted the village attorney to send an official letter to OCM requesting help.

“That’s where we stand right now,” he said.

Though the village has received no support from OCM and state officials involved directly with the issue, Paquin was complimentary of Senator Dan Stec and Assemblyman Scott Gray.

Unlevel playing field

At the heart of the matter for Paquin is the impact the illicit shops will have on lawful businesses within the village, saying he has no issues with the sale of marijuana but rather that it is “not a level playing field” for all businesses.

“The thing that bothers me is we ask all of these other businesses to go out and get the proper licenses, the proper certifications to sell products. And how can we look them in the eye,” Paquin asked.

Taxation is also a primary concern, with illicit shops not paying tax on sales of goods.

Paquin said that is also a hindrance to lawful businesses and takes money from the village as well.

Paquin also commented that if other, lawful businesses in the village were in violation of state taxation laws, the state would immediately take action to address it.

“Don't you think for one second New York State would not be up here,” he said.

According to Paquin, village officials have also continued to reach out to the New York State Department of Taxation Criminal Division, ATF and other state agencies for help.

“It's disgraceful and I just hope at some point, someone gets the courage to actually help us out. If not, we're going to be left on an island. We're going to have to do it ourselves. So I just kind of want to prep everybody for that,” Paquin said.

Creating confusion

The confusion over the “square mile” has prompted concerns from those who are hoping to follow the proper laws and guidelines.

On Tuesday, Lynn Montour, owner of Corner Convenience on Park Ave. in the village, asked Paquin if a shop that is tribally licensed is allowed to sell cannabis in the square mile.

Paquin shot the idea down, saying “Until a judge tells me otherwise, as far as we are concerned, that is the village of Massena and any shop that wishes to sell cannabis must have a state license.”

According to Montour, her shop is tribally licensed and that she has gone through both the village and Tribal Code Enforcement Office to ensure compliance, receiving approval from both entities to operate her current business at the property.

“I just want to make sure we are doing everything the right way and that we are compliant. We aren’t trying to illegally operate anywhere, we just want to make sure we aren’t doing anything wrong,” Montour said.

Paquin and Hardy both commended Montour for her efforts in establishing her business in the village, acknowledging that she has followed all requirements and has communicated with the office on many occasions if issues arose.