As the end of 2021 approaches, we see the usual focus on New Year’s resolutions. But one of the most important, and little-noticed, decisions for municipalities across New York must be made this year, not next or any time in the future: whether to exercise the right to opt out of permitting marijuana dispensaries and consumption sites, as permitted by state cannabis legalization.

With little fanfare, a great pot divide is opening between cities and suburbs — and disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, long suffering from drug use, look again to be the losers, denied even the choice the more affluent are exercising.

According to the Rockefeller Institute of Government’s frequently updated Marijuana Opt-Out Tracker, 588 of 1,518 municipalities have resisted the blandishments of new tax revenues and just said no to marijuana retailers, while 670 have turned down consumption sites — what the Dutch euphemistically call “coffee shops.”

Hundreds of towns have yet to decide. In New Jersey, where the opt-out deadline passed in August, 71 percent of local governments decided to keep pot out.

It’s revealing to review who’s giving thumbs up to weed and who’s resisting its temptation. Cities large and small — New York, White Plains, Schenectady, Mount Vernon, Peekskill, Yonkers — have opted in. But adjoining suburbs are opting out in droves: Scarsdale, Pelham and Bronxville have. No municipality in Nassau County — not one — has opted in.

There’s money involved. Localities will receive 4 percent of the 9 percent state excise tax — and cities under budget pressure may see a “pot” of gold.

a jar of medical marijuana sits on the counter at a dispensary in Sherwood, Ore.
A great pot divide is opening between cities and suburbs.
AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus, File

Persons of good faith can disagree about whether cannabis should be legal — and whether it’s a good idea for adults to inhale. Recent research findings about the drug’s effects on brain development in adolescents and young adults are, however, sobering. The surgeon general warned last year that “until and unless more is known about the long-term impact, the safest choice for pregnant women and adolescents is not to use marijuana.”

The point is that well-off suburbs are choosing to go slow — and it’s a choice they can make. In contrast, city neighborhoods — many as residential in character as their suburban counterparts — don’t get a choice. They’re opted-in by, for instance, the New York City Council.

On the Queens-Nassau line, pot shops could spring up in Bayside and Jamaica but won’t be seen in Great Neck. Are we sure that central Harlem residents — already protesting so-called safe-injection sites for hard-drug users — want to see a proliferation of pot retailers tempting their kids?

This is a form of vote suppression, if you will: Every New York City community board should have as much right as Hempstead or New Castle to say no to cannabis outlets. The risk to disadvantaged, minority neighborhoods — disproportionately found within big-city boundaries — is evident.

The inside of the Columbia Care medical marijuana dispensary is seen in New York January 7, 2016.
Hundreds of New York localities have not taken a position on pot sales.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

There is much to be concerned about what Scott Gottlieb, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, has called a “natural experiment” in making widely available cannabis said to be far more potent than its 1960s version — especially when more than 100,000 Americans have died of drug overdoses in the last year. No, pot is not the same as fentanyl (though some versions are laced with it). But the combination of thrill-seeking, alienation and self-medication that can drive drug use is common to both.

State governments, searching for yet more sin tax revenues, acquiesce in legalization and send a signal of harmlessness, despite the fact that the FDA reports it “has not approved a marketing application for cannabis for the treatment of any disease or condition.”

Hundreds of New York localities — including Albany and Buffalo — have not taken a position on pot sales and face the looming New Year’s Eve deadline. The law permits them to opt in at any time. This is their only chance to just say no. Let’s hope city councils and town boards listen closely to their communities.

Howard Husock is a senior fellow in domestic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. 

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