Berkshire Leaders Try To Make Sense Of State Retail Pot Law

Sep 1, 2017

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission held a recreational marijuana workshop in Lenox, Massachusetts Thursday for political leaders. The drug is now legal statewide.

Massachusetts residents and leaders are trying to make sense of how to regulate recreational marijuana after voters legalized it via a statewide ballot question in November.

It was approved overwhelmingly in Berkshire County. Every municipality supported the measure. Anyone 21 or older in Massachusetts can buy retail marijuana products.

Attorney J. Raymond Miyares was brought in by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission to give an overview of the new law. He believes many “yes” voters didn’t realize marijuana shops and facilities could wind up in their backyard.

“The fact that a town voted ‘Yes’ should not – even though I think the legislature thinks so – should not, in my mind, be interpreted to mean that people were voting to have retail facilities in their own town,” Miyares says. “They may have just been saying ‘We think weed should be allowed,’ and the rest of it is details.”

Under a follow-up law passed in July, communities can opt out of recreational pot sales and determine local taxes on the drug. 

By January, individual possession and cultivation will be legal. The Cannabis Control Commission, set up by the legislature, will need to adopt and enforce regulations in March. It will accept license applications starting April 1st. Licenses are expected to be issued by the end of 2018. 

Most marijuana establishments will be treated like other stores.

“If we do nothing, [Right.], then a retail facility can exist?” a resident says.

“Then a retail facility exists on exactly same terms as any other retail facility,” Miyares says.

Miyares says if a Berkshire municipality wants to prohibit retail pot, or limit the amount of retailers, it would take a two-thirds local vote, which is required for zoning bylaw changes, and majority approval on a ballot question.

“I would be surprised that many towns will go down the route of saying ‘We are going to allow marijuana facilities, but we are only going to allow two of them.’ I think it’s much more likely that they’re either going to say none at all or no retail, but we will allow other kinds of things, or they’re not going to try to limit them in that way,” Miyares says.

The process is a bit easier for the municipalities north of Springfield, some Boston suburbs and pockets around the Cape that voted “No” last November – they only need to follow the zoning bylaw procedure.

“It’s certainly the first time I have seen a statute that tied a legal consequence to a previous vote that the people who were doing that previous vote didn’t know about,” Miyares says.

It could be a long process. Such votes generally happen in May.

“Typically, the votes for ballot questions happen the week after town meeting. So if you do it this way, you basically got a two-year process,” a listener says.

Municipalities like Pittsfield want to take advantage of the possible revenue boost retail pot can have. The state Cannabis Control Commission expects the industry to generate $1 billion statewide. Since July, the state take on retail pot purchases has been 17 percent, including state tax.

Pittsfield officials said in August there’s no point of putting it back on the ballot. They contend last year’s vote, when 58.4 percent supported recreational marijuana, is good enough. Municipalities can profit from a maximum 3 percent increase on sales.

Other towns, including Egremont and Lee, have passed temporary measures to halt the establishment of marijuana businesses.

Some residents are hesitant. William Barry spoke at an August Pittsfield city council meeting.

“I didn’t want to have pot shops at the Allendale Shopping Center. I didn’t want to have them at Berkshire Crossing. I didn’t want to have them on North Street where I work,” Barry says. “But the law is the law.”

Medical marijuana is its own ball of wax. It’s not taxed – compared to the combined taxes on retail pot of roughly 20 percent. More than a dozen dispensaries have opened to serve almost 40,000 patients statewide. A handful more want to open in Berkshire County, to serve 600.

Canna Care Docs in Pittsfield, which opened this week, is the ninth office in Massachusetts – and one of two in the county – to evaluate patients for medical marijuana. Theory Wellness in Great Barrington will be the first medical dispensary in the county later this year.