Legalized Pot Presents New Questions for Communities
LUNENBURG -- When Massachusetts voted to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana, local officials scrambled to develop regulations on how to accommodate the decision in their communities.
In Lunenburg, as in many other towns, the first decision was the easiest -- buy more time.
In March 2017, officials voted to bar the sale or production of recreational marijuana for the next 21 months. Officials said the moratorium -- which was recently extended through May -- would give the town sufficient time to address issues relating to legal marijuana.
Land use director Adam Burney said he used the time to become a de facto expert in an area he had little previous experience.
“Understanding how this industry is going to operate and work within regulations has been a big challenge,” Burney said. “I can’t count the number of presentations or classes or seminars I’ve gone to that have dealt with the regulations.”
By April 2018, prospective recreational cannabis retailers began applying for licenses across the state, but many communities were still working on the necessary zoning regulations that would dictate where the businesses could operate.
While waiting for direction from the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, Lunenburg officials considered mailing a survey to residents asking them where they thought retail pot shops should be located within the community.
Lunenburg residents approved the cultivation and sale of recreational marijuana by a vote of 53 percent to 47 percent on Question 4 in 2016, but it wasn’t long before officials began to suspect that a majority of voters might not support the issue. Burney noted that difference in percentages represented a difference of 400 votes during a presidential election.
″(The board) has been hearing from people who don’t want the facilities in town at all, they’ve heard from some people who want them as an economic driver in town, and the more they talk to people, the more they’re unsure that there’s a majority opinion one way or the other,” Burney said.
To that end, officials are proposing five warrant articles to prohibit each of the uses: cultivation, retail, manufacturing, transportation, and testing labs. In theory, that means the town could end up with, for example, a prohibition on retail use, but still permit any of the other four, or any other combination thereof. Voters would also have a choice to approve the regulation of any of the proposed uses. Prohibition of the sale recreational marijuana will also be on the ballot, according to Burney.
“So if it’s clear that people want the uses, we are ready and have regulations to address them,” Burney said. “It’s not a referendum on marijuana again, it’s a referendum on how the town wants to embrace or reject the industry of marijuana.”
Fearing an “open season” for recreational marijuana businesses if the town did not adopt new zoning before the Dec. 1 deadline, officials discussed ways to solicit public input on the issue. (Under state law, recreational pot companies would be allowed to open at any location in communities that did not adopt zoning limits.)
Voters made their wishes known, at least when it comes to medicinal marijuana, at Town Meeting in May. They approved zoning that would limit their exposure to the smell, noise, and potential security threats associated with marijuana cultivation for medical consumption. Under the new zoning, any cultivation of medicinal marijuana would have to take place inside a building or structure at least 500-feet away from a residential property line.
Finalizing the details on recreational marijuana use has proven to be a little more complicated. At a meeting of the Planning Board on Tuesday, members got through about two-thirds of the bylaw proposed by Burney. Among the finer points addressed were a definition of recreational marijuana, how visible any paraphernalia should be outside of establishments, and what kind of marijuana could be restricted from certain stores.
“This is the bylaw I had written after hearing and taking notes and listening to what the Planning Board and what the public had discussed over the last six or so months,” Burney said. “So I sat down and put something together and proposed it to them, and this (meeting) was their first go-through to see what they felt needed to be changed.” Burney said he expected any final changes to be made to his proposal at an upcoming meeting, with a final draft to be presented shortly afterward.
“That’s when they’ll say they’re comfortable as a group with what’s in the bylaw, and then it will be put out to the public,” Burney said. The draft will then be circulated among town officials, posted on the town website, and public hearings will be scheduled. The next public hearing is tentatively set for Feb. 25.
Follow Stephen Landry on Twitter @Landry17Stephen