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FEB 17 - FEB 24, 2015

The Political Realities of Pot
With Maziarz Gone, Lewiston Greenhouse Faces Challenges to Securing Medical Marijuana License

By Frank Parlato

February 17, 2015

Lawyer G. Steven Pigeon (R) is trying to help Niagara County and the Town of Lewiston reap a windfall by helping Lewiston Greenhouse LLC secure one of five licenses statewide to grow medical marijuana. Gov Andrew Cuomo (L) will be one of the men who will make the final decision.


Under legislation signed into law by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, just five sites in New York state will be selected as licensed medical marijuana growers.

Lewiston Greenhouse LLC - owned in part by the owners of Modern Disposal - is hoping to be one of them.

The political obstacles facing Lewiston Greenhouse are significant, however.

To begin with, there is the need for local buy-in. While all five members of the Lewiston Town Board including Supervisor Dennis Brochey and newcomer Councilwoman Beth Ceretto, wife of Assemblyman John Ceretto, have endorsed Lewiston Greenhouse's efforts, both they and county government have yet to act.

Local resolutions urging the state to site medical marijuana in Lewiston would be a necessary step in gaining support for Lewiston Greenhouse's application—but there is much more that needs to occur politically.

The reality for Lewiston Greenhouse LLC, Gary Smith's proposed conversion of his H2Gro Greenhouses from tomatoes to marijuana, points to a difficult political playing field, made much trickier by the surprise retirement of veteran state Sen. George D. Maziarz last December.

Maziarz had, in two decades in Albany, risen to become the third-most-powerful member of the Senate, and certainly was among a half-dozen or so true powerbrokers inside state government that really controlled state policy. The notion of "three men in a room" hadn't been the reality in state government since the departure of former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Maziarz ally, and the ascendency of Sen. Dean G. Skelos of Long Island to the Senate's top job.

Maziarz and Skelos had a relationship that would have been described, in Facebook terms, as "it's complicated," particularly with Republicans forced into governing in a coalition with breakaway Democrats. The two Republican senators rarely saw eye-to-eye, but the politically weak Skelos was reliant on Maziarz and southern tier Sen. Thomas W. Libous, as well as "Independent Democrat" Sen. Jeff Klein to hold the fractious majority coalition together.

In the Legislature's upper chamber, the departure of Maziarz, the victory of a narrow Republican majority not reliant on its breakaway Democrat allies to govern, and an indictment courtesy of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara that has sidelined Libous has left the weak Skelos exercising the prerogatives that come with the Senate's top offices.

Despite being the least powerful of the "three men in a room," Skelos will want to see political allies, or politicians who can do things for him to secure his role as majority leader, benefit from the five pot permits.

In the Legislature's lower chamber, meanwhile, a political earthquake has changed the complexion of that body radically. With the fall from grace of former Speaker Sheldon Silver, once arguably the single most powerful man in Albany, the political center of gravity, at least in the Assembly, has shifted from Manhattan's Lower East Side to the Bronx, where the new speaker, Carl Heastie, hails from. That this represents not just a change in address, but a shift from Silver's Orthodox Jewish allies to African-American politicos in the halls of power.

Heastie and his lieutenants will want to reward their allies as well.

Lastly, there is Gov. Cuomo, who has not been an overly-enthusiastic proponent of medical marijuana. His law is the tightest in the nation, and he nearly had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the signing ceremony last summer. His draft regulations point to heavy oversight of the nascent pot-growing operations.

However, no one makes deals like Andrew Cuomo, and no one has an eye to their political future—even one darkened by political scandal—like Andrew Cuomo. If there are political allies seeking licenses, the Second Floor of the New York State Capitol will work to steer licenses there.

Which leads us back to Niagara County's challenge.

Half a year ago, our representation included one of the half-dozen most powerful men in Albany. Sen. Maziarz could have, with a word, locked up a grow license for Lewiston. His successor, while by all accounts able and bright, is a freshman. And in politics, being a freshman is every bit as unpleasant as it was in high school.

Sen. Robert G. Ortt does not yet hold the political capital necessary to swing a license to Niagara County, or to even make those kinds of requests.

Meanwhile, there is Assemblyman John D. Ceretto. The Lewiston Republican is openly enthusiastic about medical marijuana. One local political source even joked that "Cheech and Chong aren't as excited about pot as John Ceretto." Indeed, the third-term state representative has been openly advocating for Smith's grow operation longer than just about any local politician. In fact, Ceretto was one of just six Assembly Republicans to consistently vote for medical marijuana every time it came up.

While Ceretto has proven himself repeatedly as a hard-working, aggressively positive Assemblyman, he is also a Republican in a house governed by a more than two-to-one Democratic edge. Worse still, he sits in a district that has a significant Democratic plurality.

In other words, Speaker Heastie has no incentive, beyond perhaps rewarding Ceretto's earnestness, to send a license to the 145th Assembly District, possibly cementing a Republican there for years to come.

And it's hard to imagine Dean Skelos heaping such generosity on a political newcomer.

Meanwhile, this newspaper has reported on the increasing strain in relations between the Cuomo administration and the mayor of Niagara Falls, Paul A. Dyster, over the latter's failure to capitalize on his Seneca Niagara Casino windfall. So, one wonders whether Cuomo would see fit to gift neighboring Lewiston with a grow license—or Niagara Falls with a pot dispensary, for that matter—knowing that it benefits a man who squanders both political and physical capital so readily.

Adding to Lewiston Greenhouse's challenges is the reality of other competitors seeking licensure, some close by.

In Clarence, Fioria Franco LLC has taken on lobbyists Masiello, Martucci, Calabrese & Associates (favorites of the local Republican establishment) to "analyze" the state's medical marijuana law. Clarence benefits from one of the few Republicans in the Assembly with any real clout, Assemblywoman Jane L. Corwin, who has increasingly become the face of the GOP in Western New York, as well as Assemblyman Ray Walter, from neighboring Amherst, who was an early and consistent proponent of medical marijuana in his conference.

Add to that Gov. Cuomo's heavy interest in the Buffalo Niagara Region, and the likelihood of no more than one grow operation being cited in any geographic region of the state, and the threat posed by the Clarence outfit is very real.

Smith, meanwhile, is relying upon Buffalo-based G. Steve Pigeon, one of the more influential men in Albany politics, who helped foment the 2009 State Senate Coup, to handle their lobbying effort.

Other entities, including Privateer Holdings, Inc., a Seattle-based company with significant investment in medical marijuana, and Great Lakes Medicinals, based in the Rochester suburb of Webster, are also aggressively seeking grow licenses.

None of this even takes into account the vast farmland that comprises so much of Central New York, outside the populous Syracuse metro area—nor the three powerful state senators in that region who will seek licenses for any growers that emerge in their districts—nor, for that matter, the dairy-farm dominated agricultural counties in the "North Country" along the St. Lawrence River and the Quebec border, where Republicans will be trying to hold onto seats that are no longer reliably "red."

And, the United Food & Commercial Workers union has indicated that more than a dozen firms have contacted them about reaching accord with union labor—which bolsters the chances of any firm looking from licensure from a government dominated by downstate Democrats.

Ultimately, the challenge for Lewiston Greenhouse may come not from gaining local consensus—which seems to be building, and in their favor—but in clearing the hurdles of a state government dominated by downstate interests and entrenched lawmakers with far more seniority than our own local representation.

Pigeon, who has time and again succeeded in delivering his client's needs, will have his hands full. Smith and Pigeon may find they will need to align with another lobbyist(s) if they are to overcome the heavy push coming from other parts of the state.

While these are the political realities of securing a license to grow, there is always the chance that the decision will be made on merit.

Lewiston Greenhouse LLC has a state of the art facility that can produce in its 12 acre site the equivalent of 500 acres of outdoor growing.

Nevertheless this is Albany, where merit is not always the leading condition for making decisions.

Meantime, the time to submit an application is still a few weeks away, at least.

Time enough for Niagara County and the Lewiston Town Board to sponsor resolutions endorsing the idea of Lewiston having one of five licenses to grow medical marijuana in New York State.

The financial benefits to the county and to Lewiston, if the local home town team secures one of these licenses, will be measured in the millions each and every year.

Former State Sen. George Maziarz had the political clout to get things done in Albany. His retirement left a void for Western New York.






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