More towns calling timeout on marijuana stores
The image of local stores selling recreational pot has residents of some Massachusetts cities and towns calling timeout on part of the voter-passed state law allowing retailers to offer marijuana products.
Westborough voters earlier this month approved a ban blocking retailers from selling pot for recreational use, Southborough is considering a ban of its own, and there could be more than a dozen Massachusetts communities with temporary moratoriums on retail pot shops by later this spring.
Jim Malloy, Westborough’s town manager, said voters were concerned about the appearance of shops popping up on Route 9, which passes through town, and didn’t see sales as compatible with a community that “represents family values.”
“I think people just saw that as an image that people weren’t trying to portray in Westborough,” Malloy said.
About 1.8 million Massachusetts voters supported a November ballot question that legalized recreational marijuana use and — starting in 2018 — will allow pot to be sold for recreational use.
But even where voters supported marijuana legalization, uncertainty remains. In Amesbury, Mayor Ken Gray said he’s been approached by residents who said they voted for legal pot so people can use it in their homes, not necessarily so it can be sold in their community.
Gray set up a panel to weigh the city’s options — Amesbury is home to one of the state’s earliest marijuana grow facilities — and he noted that the city could profit from taxes on retail pot sales, drawing customers from both Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Under the law, pot sales would have a 3.75 percent tax, and communities can levy an additional 2 percent tax.
But some remain unsure about allowing retailers to set up shop in Amesbury, he said.
“Is it consistent with who are we are as a community? That’s the big question,” Gray said.
The November ballot question made it legal for adults over age 21 to possess up to 10 ounces of marijuana at their primary residence and grow up to 12 plants per household. The law also allowed communities to opt out of allowing pot retailers if voters approve to do so at the ballot box.
State lawmakers have already begun changing the law, pushing back the start date for retailers to sell marijuana from January to July 2018.
State Senator Jason Lewis offered bills that would strengthen local communities’ control over marijuana shops, and reduce the amount of pot an adult may possess. And some state lawmakers have considered moving enforcement of the new law from the office of State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, who has said her staff has been working to appoint a three-member Cannabis Control Commission.
Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the legalization campaign, said once these businesses start operating, fears over how retail pot could affect communities should dissipate.
“I think people are going to find these are very unobtrusive, modest businesses,” Borghesani said.
But majorities of voters in 91 communities — including Westborough and Southborough — rejected recreational pot legalization, according to the secretary of state’s office.
Jody Hensley, who helped to push for Westborough’s ban against marijuana retailers, said she was concerned with availability of marijuana products in town, believes marijuana poses a health risk, and that allowing legal marijuana sales will make it easier for children obtain it.
“We are not a community that actively promotes sales and use of this drug,” said Hensley, a former school committee chairwoman.
In Southborough, officials are expected to offer Town Meeting in April a choice of either a ban against retail marijuana or a zoning rule governing where pot sellers can set up shop, said Don Morris, chairman of the town’s planning board.
The town will have to decide how to deal with something it didn’t support, he said.
“The state says you can do it. And yet, [among] the town of Southborough’s voters, the majority said they didn’t want it,” said Morris. “We felt it was appropriate to offer voters a choice.”
Andy Gaus, spokesman for the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, said blocking legal marijuana retailers from a community will only strengthen an illegal drug trade, and that residents will miss out on the benefit of tax revenue.
“If [communities] want control, the best thing to do is let the shops open and make adjustments as they go,” said Gaus. “They don’t have any control over the black market” of illegal pot sales.
In Milford, where voters supported the pot question, officials are considering zoning regulations to limit where shops could be opened within the town’s borders, said Richard A. Villani, the town administrator.
“We’re still very early in the process,” said Villani, but Milford officials hope to present a proposal to Town Meeting in May.
Even in towns that supported recreational marijuana legalization — including Brookline, Hull, Abington, Chicopee, and Mansfield — officials are considering temporary moratoriums on retail pot, local officials said.
In Brookline, the local economic development advisory board will hold an April 3 public hearing on a spring Town Meeting warrant article calling for a temporary moratorium on recreational marijuana shops.
Similar rules are being considered in communities that rejected the ballot question, such as Ludlow, Burlington, and Hopkinton.
If approved, they’d join Ashland, Springfield, and West Bridgewater in working to block local retail pot shops.
In Ashland, about 51 percent of voters in town supported pot legalization in November, but later that month, its Town Meeting approved a moratorium on pot retailers through the end of 2017. Officials will likely try to extend the moratorium through mid-2018, said Ashland Town Manager Michael Herbert
Ashland Board of Health member Judy Margulies is concerned about health impacts of legal marijuana, and that voters backed legalization out of concern for those facing legal trouble for possessing pot, not necessarily the creation of a new industry.
The moratorium “allows us some breathing room to prevent the industry to come to a community before [voters] have the option to consider whether [we] want to be an opt-in or opt-out community,” said Margulies.
Jennifer Burke, the principal planner in Hopkinton, said the town’s planning board supports a moratorium through August 2018.
Hopkinton voters rejected the 2016 ballot question on legalizing marijuana, and the town’s police and youth services staff worry about children having easier access to the drug, Burke said.
“They’re concerned [about] the impact to the family dynamic and the youths in town,” said Burke.
Chicopee City Councilor James K. Tillotson said the city council could vote on a moratorium that would last through the end of this year and allow officials to develop zoning rules for pot stores — and allow the state to “get its act together” on its own marijuana regulations.
William R. Ross, Mansfield’s town manager, said the proposed moratorium — expected to last through the end of 2018, if backed by Town Meeting — would buy officials more time to get local regulations in place.
“We have a whole new substance that is being legalized for use by any adult who wants to use it, and that requires careful thinking,” Ross said.