Editorial: Recreational pot, like winter, is coming

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

“Winter is coming,” murmurs House of Stark characters in “Game of Thrones.” So is recreational pot in Massachusetts. Has your town taken its measure? It’s an issue that should bring the same laser-focused attention for Franklin County as the apprehensions of a harsh season bring to the fictional inhabitants of Westeros.

At Friday’s Franklin County Chamber of Commerce meeting, Cannabis Control Commissioner Jennifer Flanagan brought this message to those assembled: “The most important thing I want you to know is that communities have got to get involved in this, because this is coming to your town.”

What’s coming is this: By April, the state expects to start receiving licensing applications from those who want to grow, process, package or sell pot, and by July those facilities will start to open, with the ability to legally sell marijuana. This prospect has, or should have, local leaders weighing the receipt of tax revenues from retail stores and growers against predictions of children consuming pot-laced edibles.

Since January, in a “not in my back yard” dynamic, towns across the state have imposed at least 121 bans or other constraints on marijuana-related businesses, at least temporarily, according to the Associated Press, including several towns in the Franklin County region.

At an Oct. 25 special town meeting, Bernardston voters passed bylaw changes that would temporarily prohibit recreational marijuana facilities, enacting a moratorium that would be in effect until Dec. 31, 2018, or until bylaw amendments regulating recreational marijuana facilities are adopted.

In Northfield, at a special town meeting set for Dec. 4, residents will vote on a bylaw imposing a temporary moratorium on recreational marijuana facilities. Planning Board Chairman Richard Fitzgerald said, “People feel strongly about a subject like this. It’s important to get something in our bylaws before the state starts accepting applications for these businesses.”

Many other towns, including Greenfield, Shelburne and Conway, have enacted such moratoriums.

Hawley just held a public hearing Tuesday (Nov. 21) on an amendment to the town’s Protective Zoning Bylaw, adding a temporary moratorium on recreational marijuana establishments, with a special town meeting planned for mid-December.

Montague will hold its own public hearing on Nov. 28 with the prospect of a zoning bylaw regarding the regulation of such establishments, according to a public notice.

Already, a backlash of sorts is emerging in the state, as a number of communities are bucking the wave of bans and moratoriums that followed voter approval of legal recreational pot. On the Cape, Brewster voters on Nov. 13 rejected a proposed ban on marijuana commerce and then voted down a moratorium keeping recreational cannabis businesses away until 2019. Amesbury voters similarly chose to keep their city open to the growing legal marijuana industry, according to State House News Service.

In October, the Athol Selectboard voted 4-1 in favor of a letter of non-opposition for Herbology, Inc., a medical marijuana nonprofit applicant with a provisional certificate that wants to move into the old Union Twist Drill Co. building. Sea Hunter Therapeutics, a for-profit company, provides capital and intellectual property to Herbology.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said on Nov. 15, at the Massachusetts Marijuana Summit hosted by State House News Service, that he expects many of the 100-plus cities and towns that have imposed some type of restriction on cannabis commerce will ultimately host some aspect of the new industry. As reported by State House News Service, towns “just want to get it right,” says Rosenberg, citing the “go slow” approach his hometown of Amherst is taking.

Rosenberg would take communities of 5,000 or fewer people off the list of potential sites for a marijuana shop, simply because the population is too small to support it. But in order to generate the kind of tax revenue necessary to fund the Cannabis Control Commission and to reduce the black market as much as possible, Massachusetts needs “enough distribution across the state so people who want the product can reasonably access it,” he said.

The Cannabis Control Commission says it wants to hear concerns from mayors and other local officials now, while the CCC is in the midst of writing its regulations. “Our job is not to tell the cities and towns what to do,” said CCC Chairman Steven Hoffman. “Our job is just to make sure they’re fully informed.”

From a quarterly meeting of the Small Town Administrators of Massachusetts (STAM) that Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski attended, he brought back this message: “The deadline by which the state will begin licensing recreational marijuana dispensaries is fast approaching.”

So is winter. So is the deadline for towns across the Franklin County region to act in what each perceives its best interest. We encourage all who haven’t yet, to get ahead of this new and potentially significant change. The moratoriums enacted so far make sense because they buy time for towns to think through the follow-up decision: How precisely to participate in the new world of legal marijuana.