HARWICH — The planning board endorsed the proposed temporary moratorium on the sale and distribution of recreational marijuana in a public hearing this past week after receiving testimony from Police Chief David Guillemette and Sgt. Robert Brackett.
At the onset of the hearing, Planning Board member Joseph McParland sought confirmation the town voted negatively last November on the state ballot question that approved the use of recreational marijuana in the commonwealth. Guillemette said the town voted against it by nearly 500 votes. The Harwich vote was 4,449 to 3,982 against the measure while voters across the state supported the ballot question by a 54 to 46 percent margin.
“It's the law now,” Chief Guillemette said. “There is a lot of confusion about the law. This is a very intelligent first step.”
The police chief pointed out the law requires a Cannabis Control Commission be appointed on the state level and that has yet to happen. He said the moratorium will give the town a full year to see what happens.
Planning Board Chairman Larry Brophy said there are no retail recreational sales establishments in the commonwealth at this point.
Sgt. Brackett, who the police chief described as the department's resident expert on narcotics, said while marijuana can be purchased for medicinal use in the state, neither recreational marijuana nor seeds can be sold in the commonwealth.
Brophy pointed out the town went through this once before. Board member James Atkinson said the board tried to get ahead of the game when the medical marijuana law was approved. He said provisions were drafted to designate where in the town medical marijuana could be sold. That article was defeated in town meeting, Atkinson said.
Brackett said medical marijuana could be sold anywhere in town, except that the commonwealth has rules that prevent the sale in certain locations, such as in the vicinity of schools.
Brackett said it has long been determined marijuana is not on a par with other drugs, such as opiates. He said its use will not lead to addiction or an overdose. But, he added in his position, talking to opiate addicts, they predominately say it's a gateway to addiction, starting with marijuana.
“It's not the evil we made it out to be,” Brackett said. “The credibility was shot.”
Part of the problem, Brackett said, went back to a failed educational component. He said the risk from marijuana was initially placed on a par with heroin, though people using it knew otherwise. The early educational message was marijuana is not a gateway drug, it is more serious, but that message is changing. He said it's no different than using alcohol, with marijuana use, people may become more susceptible to taking other drugs.
McParland, an attorney who works as a public defender, said in many of his conversations and interviews, people he is representing say they started with marijuana.
Atkinson said the moratorium would be in place for one year and it will give the board time to make a proper determination for the town of Harwich. The state is still trying to figure out what steps it will take, he said. Atkinson recommended they engage town counsel to see how it can be regulated in Harwich. He said they want to get a proposal together to go to town meeting in 2018.
“The state moves slow, we'll still be dealing with this in 2022,” Brophy said.
“If that's the case then we'd be talking about extending the moratorium next year for another year,” Atkinson said.
“There's a lot of merit to pumping the brakes and seeing what happens, even if you are in favor of it,” Brackett added.
Brackett talked about the money involved in the law, The regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act as it is known in Massachusetts. He said in the states of Colorado and Washington they are taxing it at 30 percent. However, here they are seeking a 3.9 percent state tax, plus a two percent local tax. He also pointed out the law provides a provision for communities to opt out of it.
Guillemette said there will be impacts on public safety from this law, there is not doubt about it, and his department will be examining those impacts.
Planning Board member Linda Cebula cited a letter from Board of Health Director Paula Champagne and urged it be read into the record. That letter stated the health board has discussed the recreational marijuana law and is in favor of strict control for access and use of marijuana.
With that McParland offered a motion that the planning board recommend article 22 and the moratorium on the sale and distribution of recreational marijuana be adopted by town meeting. The article in the annual town meeting warrant is actually number 37. The board supported the motion with member Cebula abstaining.