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SHEELA CLARY: The ‘impact’ of Community Impact Fees

Municipalities around the state have interpreted the rules as well as could be expected, and the evidence shows that Great Barrington has done much better than most.

The eastern Massachusetts town of Uxbridge recently lost a fight with Caroline’s Cannabis, the marijuana dispensary it hosts, which had sued to recover $1.2 million in Community Impact Fees collected by the town. Presumably emboldened by that win, four of the five active marijuana dispensaries in the Western Massachusetts town of Great Barrington—Theory Wellness, Rebelle, Calyx, and Farnsworth—have filed suit and are seeking refunds in excess of $6.3 million, with about 80 percent of that figure accounted for by Theory’s contributions. In their complaint letter, Theory calls Great Barrington’s CIFs “illegal” and “extortionate,” which is unfair and misdirected, considering first, that Theory readily agreed to pay those fees from the outset, and second, that the town had nothing to do with coming up with the regulations surrounding the fees. Municipalities around the state have interpreted the rules as well as could be expected, and the evidence shows that Great Barrington has done much better than most.

When recreational cannabis dispensaries were opening for business in late 2018 and early 2019, the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) was still building the plane even as it was taking off, and they did well, especially as compared to the laughable “disaster” that even New York’s governor acknowledges has been playing out there as the state attempts to tame a wildly unregulated market.

The CCC was also bound to get some things wrong, however, and with the set up of mandatory Host Community Agreements and optional Community Impact Fees, they clearly did. The three percent Community Impact Fee on top of taxes was permissible so long as the money collected would be used to offset the “reasonably related” costs of hosting the cannabis business, which meant, in the CCC’s words: “a demonstrable nexus between the actual operations of a Marijuana establishment or MTC and an enhanced need for a Host Community’s goods or services in order to offset the impact of operations.”

But there was never a mechanism for ensuring that such a nexus was demonstrated. Municipalities around the Commonwealth chose their own definitions of the “reasonably related” impacts of hosting cannabis dispensaries, with most, it seems, related to infrastructure wear and tear and use of public employees. Ed Abrahams, former Great Barrington Selectboard member and the man who wrote the town’s original host agreements, says that he was confused from the outset regarding what impact the state was referencing. “The question I always had was, ‘Are they talking potholes, or the actual impact of legalizing marijuana?’”

According to a 2021 analysis out of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, commissioned by the state’s cannabis trade group and including data from 149 municipalities, there was “little oversight” of the agreements at the state level once they signed off, and many towns and cities seem to have used their fees to pay the bills. More than half spent it on “some combination of roads, inspectional services, law enforcement, permitting, and public health.” In a lawsuit against the city, Worcester said they had spent the fees on the “creation of an RFP process to award licenses, the process of negotiating the host agreements, and the establishment of zoning regulations, ordinances, and special permits.” In other words, the used their CIF fund to charge cannabis businesses for the cost of doing business with them.

But Great Barrington, unlike Uxbridge or Worcester or any number of other towns and cities, interpreted the CCC’s loose guidelines as referring to the indirect impacts of establishing Great Barrington as ground zero for legalized marijuana on the Eastern Seaboard. Great Barrington Town Manager Mark Pruhenski has repeatedly said that the town took the long view. (Abrahams agreed with that assessment, adding, “I wish I used cannabis so I could boycott the four that are suing us. What they are doing is wrong.”)

To determine where the fees should go, Pruhenski established a grant application system and convened a board of volunteers to review and approve applications. Over the past four years, that committee has judiciously selected organizations and schools working to counteract, among other things, the ubiquitous messages that the marijuana industry sends by the simple fact of its sudden, outsized presence in town. Berkshire Hills Regional School District, for instance, hired a district wellness coordinator who works with students in all three schools. One of her first tasks might have been to explain how “wellness” can refer both to a cannabis store and to what a healthy life looks like for a high school student.

At this point, I am hearing the usual complaint of, “Why aren’t you complaining about alcohol?”

It is true that booze is dangerous and everywhere, but there is a consequential difference between booze and cannabis. The harms of using alcohol are very well understood because prohibition was lifted over a century ago, and the risks have been studied and re-studied, documented and re-documented, corrected and then re-corrected. There is not much gray area surrounding the risks of alcohol use.

Cannabis, by contrast, is a drug that, until just a few months ago, was still federally classified as indistinct from heroin and cocaine. Cannabis businesses still can’t engage in interstate commerce. It operates in a weird no-man’s-land legal landscape that makes it hard to seriously study. This is a drug that, until just three years ago, was available for official research only through a single facility at the University of Mississippi, where the cannabis grown bears no resemblance whatsoever to the products on sale today in Great Barrington. One researcher, according to a 2021 NPR story, called the Ole Miss stuff an “’anemic’ greenish powder.” An indignant Reddit commenter called it “a pile of green sticks.”

Theory Wellness does not sell greenish powder or piles of green sticks, but it does sell a strain of concentrate with a THC level of 100 percent. What does a product like that do to a 15-year-old kid’s brain? Researchers are just barely scraping the surface of answering that question. Cannabis prohibition did a lot of damage in terms of bending the arc of history away from justice, and it also set the stage for our relative ignorance about a drug that is at the center of a $5 billion industry in this state.

But just to be clear, we do know that weed is bad for young human bodies, and people who would dismiss me as an alarmist throwback to reefer madness days are mistaken. Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome, contrary to news stories, is very common among young people, and it is a seriously debilitating condition. I personally know six young people who have suffered from it, people who have showed up at the emergency room at BMC and Fairview with it. Reliable research is now demonstrating that cannabis does more lasting damage to the developing brain than alcohol. In what I consider the most alarming finding, for which I also have first-hand knowledge and experience, kids who use cannabis are two to four times as likely as non-users to develop psychiatric conditions.

Given these facts, it stands to reason that dramatically expanding access to marijuana within a small town would likely have a negative impact on the well-being of that town’s young people. This is not a big leap of logic. On a per-capita basis, Great Barrington has more marijuana dispensaries than any other town or city in the state: roughly one per one thousand residents, compared to Northampton’s one per every two thousand residents. Yet the four dispensaries suing are uniformly clear that their businesses have had, in the words of Calyx CEO Donna Norman, “zero impact” on the town.

This confident assertion made Dr. Jeff Foote smile. He is the CEO of the Center for Motivation and Change, a treatment center in New Marlborough, and author of the book “Beyond Addiction.” He served as an expert panelist at an event at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on March 26 titled “Cannabis: A Family Conversation.”

“Wow,” he said, when asked for his response to the cannabis stores’ claim of zero impact. “I’d love to see the studies they’ve done to determine that zero impact.” (For the record, he and his other panelists agreed that there was no way the industry has had zero impact on this community.)

Here is some of the impact. Since legalization, our communities have been offering the loud, repetitive drumbeat of messages that marijuana is not only not bad for you but it is also medicine. Children ride to school up and down Route 7 from Sheffield through Great Barrington, passing by four gas stations, three supermarkets, two functioning churches, one ice cream store, and six marijuana dispensaries. Also a cannabis-themed billboard that features a pretty girl on a hillside with her dog. “Best buds,” it says.

Behind the doors of family homes in Berkshire County, you will hear arguments about cannabis, with the “it’s hurting you” side far outgunned by the “it’s medicine” side. You will hear, as I heard, of a girl who dismisses her mom’s “science articles.” (The reason her mom doesn’t know what she’s talking about, she says, is because she “believed the DARE program.”)

You will hear about a boy—failing out of school, unable to eat normally because cannabis has rewired his digestive system—who pointed at Theory Wellness’ website in an argument with his mom to support his contention that weed was good for him.

My beloved young-adult relative believes that his problems are a result of his own shortcomings and not related to the powerful drug that has been impeding his brain’s functioning and preventing him from getting any forward momentum in life every day since he was a freshman in high school, the same drug that is advertised as a healthy lifestyle choice. If wellness equals cannabis, then his lack of wellness, so goes his logic, cannot be attributable to cannabis. It is an obvious conclusion for a young person—for any person—to draw.

It is hardly surprising to see that, since legalization, the numbers of local students who report that their community supports cannabis use, and who don’t perceive a risk with use, have been rising.

Great Barrington did not set the terms of the Community Impact Fees, but they have followed them with a thoughtful approach that accounts for the industry’s very real impact. For their part, dispensaries willingly accepted those terms, and it was upon those terms that they were awarded licenses to operate.

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