Massachusetts voters may have decided last November to legalize recreational marijuana, but opponents of the pot industry are not giving up.
A group of activists are encouraging grassroots campaigns in a bid to ban marijuana-related businesses on a town-by-town basis and urging state legislators to make it a simpler process for communities to “opt-out” of recreational pot.
Jody Hensley was an organizer of the citizen’s group behind Westborough becoming the first town in the state to ban recreational marijuana stores. Now, she and other organizers are helping people in other towns who would like to do the same.
" It was a very complicated process to figure out how to opt-out for our community," Hensley said. " The law is written to confuse."
It was a three-step process for Westborough to ban marijuana sales. There was a town-wide voter referendum, a Town Meeting vote for a local ordinance, and another Town Meeting vote on a zoning bylaw.
A legislative committee is taking public testimony and considering making changes to the voter-approved marijuana law before retail sales are scheduled to begin in July 2018.
"If they were to pass simpler language it would be much fairer for communities who are interested in not supporting and promoting the use and sale of this drug," said Hensley.
She and other activists have met with small groups of residents and officials from other cities and towns to talk about what local governments can do under the current state law to ban or more tightly regulate the commercial marijuana trade.
"Once you pull back the veil of misinformation, cities and towns get a much clearer look a what's at stake and it is not difficult to persuade cities and towns to opt-out," said Hensley.
The 2016 ballot question that legalized marijuana was rejected in just 90 of the state’s 351 municipalities. It lost in Westborough by a five-point margin.
It passed in the town of Amherst with 75 percent of the vote. Town officials say they are fully committed to implementing the will of the voters, but have voiced concern about local control over marijuana sales and the impact on health and public safety in the town that is home to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College, and Hampshire College.
Alisa Brewer, chairwoman of the Select Board, urged the legislature’s Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy to recommend the law be amended to allow local officials to simply enact a six-12 month moratorium once state regulations for licensing marijuana retailers are finalized.
" We don't want a delay just to put it off and put if off, but to have time to see what the regulations look like before they actually go into effect," said Brewer.
The town’s economic development chief, Geoff Kravitz, estimates the town will have to hire two additional police officers and four emergency medical responders to prepare for the opening of marijuana stores. He’s not sure if the current 2 percent local tax on marijuana sales will cover the estimated $550,000 annual cost for the additional personnel.
Select Board member Andrew Steinberg said Amherst faces unique health and safety concerns because a large part of the population is close to the legal age for marijuana consumption.
" Over 30 percent of our population is under the age of 20, and more than 65 percent of the population is under the age of 25," said Steinberg.
The voter-approved law set 21 as the legal age for marijuana possession.
Moratoriums or outright bans on retail marijuana stores would not affect medical marijuana dispensaries, or the provisions of the recreational marijuana law that pertain to personal possession of the drug and home growing of marijuana plants.