West Stockbridge — A public hearing on whether to enact temporary moratoriums on medical and recreational marijuana dispensaries turned into an at times acrimonious philosophical discussion on the merits of having legalized pot.
About 100 people, including Berkshire County District Attorney David Capeless, turned out in the Town Hall gymnasium Wednesday night (October 4) to weigh in on the proposed moratoriums in a public hearing held by the planning board.
Both Chairman Abe Hunrichs and town administrator Mark Webber emphasized that the purpose of the hearing was fairly narrow: to allow the board to gather information and residents the opportunity to support or speak against a pair of proposed moratoriums drafted by the board of selectmen. Click here to read them.
And of the dozens who addressed the subject of the moratoriums, all but two people supported them. Indeed, all five members of the planning board, which will report back to the selectmen after the hearing, spoke in favor of them.
“I’m personally in favor the moratoriums,” said planning board member Dana Bixby. “I’m in favor of good planning and good regulations. This will give us time to best regulate the activity in town.”
Hunrichs explained that, if the town did not have any bylaws in place to deal with the dispensaries, then it would be hamstrung. In the absence of town bylaws, the only regulations an applicant would be subject to are the state laws governing the dispensaries and whatever other regulations exist in town zoning bylaws.
If enacted, the moratoriums would extend until Monday, Dec. 31, 2018 — an earlier date if new bylaws were to be enacted. This spring, Ipswich Pharmaceuticals had proposed a dispensary in West Stockbridge but that application is no longer active, officials said.
The moratorium phenomenon harkens back 20 years to the era when towns across the country were caught flat-footed by lack of zoning regulations governing the siting of cell towers that were growing like weeds along highways and ridge lines across the fruited plain. Temporary moratoriums were the order of the day back then, too.
Almost 20 people, including Selectman Bernie Fallon, briefly spoke in favor, arguing that a delay in accepting applications for dispensaries would “give the town some breathing room” and time to prepare itself. Most characterized it as a “win-win” situation. One of the residents who spoke against the moratoriums said she was “afraid the moratoriums would be the first step to a ban.”
“West Stockbridge has a long tradition of cannabis enjoyment,” said Ellen Greer. “West Stockbridge is a much more progressive town.”
But it seemed that the topic of legalization captured almost everyone’s imagination. Last November, Bay State voters approved a 9,000-word ballot initiative by a margin of 53–46 percent. The highly controversial proposal allows the use, cultivation, possession and distribution of recreational marijuana for individuals who are at least 21 years old. And it created a state Cannabis Control Commission appointed by state Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg. The state Legislature, however, had to work out the details and pass a law affirming the ballot measure.
The sale of medical marijuana had been approved in a 2012 ballot initiative, which passed statewide with 63 percent of the vote and became law the following year. That program is administered by the state Department of Public Health. The recreational pot law will not affect existing law regarding medical marijuana facilities or the operation of motor vehicles while under the influence.
Echoing sentiments he expressed in a recent letter to the editor of The Edge, planning board member Jon Piasecki told the audience he was “very thankful”marijuana legalization passed in Massachusetts, in part because “it will take it off the black market, away from the drug cartels” and protect young people who might be preyed upon by “black-market dealers.”
“Lots of those people sell heroin,” Piasecki said, adding that Colorado, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, has not seen a significant increase in usage among young people.
Piasecki said he has heard talk of siting a dispensary in the state-line section of town, on the border with Canaan, New York, an area he said has a history of “fighting and rum-running.”
Piasecki also said he likes the idea of “locally grown marijuana” and would like to see it “as a resource for income.”
But town resident Gunnar Gudmundson challenged Piasecki’s assertion about Colorado, holding aloft three loose-leaf binders containing studies he said pointed to a surge in organized crime and an increase in activity in the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
Capeless, the district attorney and a West Stockbridge resident, delivered a brief fire-and-brimstone speech against the legalization of marijuana and challenged Piasecki’s claim about legalization protecting children as “not only false but ridiculous.”
“Because if we’re selling to people who are 21 or above – gee, who then becomes the target audience for people who are selling illegally?” Capeless asked. “Those who are under 21. Our kids and they’re going to be targeted. That’s the problem you’re going to be dealing with if we have dispensaries here. It’s just going to make it available and attract people who otherwise wouldn’t be involved here, potentially the dealers.”
Capeless, whose comments provoked a smattering of applause, went on to complain about the recreational marijuana ballot initiative, which he said would go easier on marijuana dispensaries that sell to underage buyers than it would on a bar owner who did the same thing.
“There happens to be a huge black market for fake IDs and so those [sellers] are going to be protected and they sell to kids and get away with it,” Capeless continued. “There are all sorts of provisions like that. It’s not like alcohol.”
Piasecki shot back: “Look at all the deaths that have already happened while the prohibition was in place and while you had all the laws to enforce it – all the heroin overdoses that happened while you had everything at your disposal. If anything is ridiculous, it’s the paradigm you have been using to stop and deal with drugs in our community.”
“We’ve been doing our job,” Capeless replied. “People like you have to do your job.”
“Excuse me?” Piasecki shouted.
Several people pointed to Theory Wellness, the first medical marijuana in Berkshire County that opened last month in Great Barrington, as an example of a clean and attractive cannabis operation.
Some other Berkshire County towns, such as Egremont and Lenox, have enacted temporary moratoriums on pot shops until planners can come up with regulations that govern the siting and operations of the facilities.
Several attendees asked whether the town could ban dispensaries altogether. According to the law, the authority to ban marijuana shops hinges on whether the town’s residents voted against the recreational marijuana ballot question last November.
If the majority of a town’s residents voted against the question, officials can ban the shops. If the majority of the town’s residents voted for the measure, then only the voters themselves could ban the shops, either through a town meeting or referendum. Towns would not have the ability to ban cultivation of marijuana, however, as that is an agricultural activity.
Every town and city in Berkshire County–and all but seven in western Massachusetts–voted for the recreational cannabis law. West Stockbridge, for example, voted for the measure by a margin of 60–40 percent, considerably greater than the statewide margin of 53–46 percent.
Sheffield farmer Ted Dobson spoke briefly about agricultural opportunities for Berkshire County farmers. He said, if the town tried to ban the sale of recreational marijuana, “you’re going to miss the boat.”
“I’m neither for or against the moratorium but I would like to speak to the fact that Berkshire County has a long history of growing cannabis even prior to it becoming legal,” Dobson said, pointing to industrial hemp production as an example.
“The bottom line is cannabis has a stigma and I understand that,” he continued. It does divide people.”
Tim Walsh, who owns the West Stockbridge Public Market, noted that the last time there was a public hearing this large and this contentious was when a group proposed to convert the Williamsville Inn into a drug treatment center for adolescents.
One woman who did not identify herself said there was no room for personal attacks on anyone in West Stockbridge.
“There is no reason to attack anyone else,” she said to applause. “We’re a friendly, open-minded town.”
The planning board will next meet Wednesday, Oct. 25, at 7 p.m. and the moratoriums are expected to be on the agenda. Webber said the selectmen are aiming for a special town meeting to vote on the proposed moratoriums by the November.