Preview: Selectmen Back Ban On Recreational Pot Shops

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Addiction

Chatham voters will address bylaws to ban retail sales of marijuana at May's annual town meeting. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM Selectmen Tuesday moved ahead with plans to draft new bylaws which, if approved by voters, would snuff out any chance of recreational marijuana shops opening in town.

Leading the charge was selectman Dean Nicastro, who noted that 57.6 percent of Chatham voters rejected last year's petition to legalize recreational marijuana, though a majority of voters across the state approved it. The new law allows towns that rejected the ballot measure to outlaw recreational pot shops within their boundaries.

“I really don't think the town of Chatham should authorize recreational marijuana establishments within its confines,” Nicastro said. “They are inconsistent with the historic character of the town.” He was careful to note that he does not oppose medicinal marijuana establishments, which are governed by separate statute.

The state's new cannabis control commission only recently held its first meeting, and will likely take some time to develop regulations for recreational marijuana establishments. But the state attorney general's office has already approved draft regulations proposed by a number of communities seeking to ban pot shops.

“This has really been a roller coaster ride for municipal officials as well as municipal attorneys,” Town Counsel Patrick Costello told the board. While there is some concern about draft bylaws that seek to allow recreational marijuana businesses with restrictions, bylaws that prohibit them altogether seem to be acceptable, he said.

Costello and Nicastro both advised a two-pronged approach to the ban. First, a general town bylaw would be drafted that would prohibit businesses that sell, grow, manufacture or test recreational marijuana products. Such a bylaw would need to win simple majority approval at town meeting to take effect.

Voters will also be asked to consider a zoning bylaw amendment prohibiting such establishments in town. Like all zoning bylaw changes, approval would require a two-thirds majority vote of town meeting. This second approach is designed “to forfend against the argument that the restriction of the location of the marijuana establishment within town really falls within zoning rules,” Nicastro said.

Nicastro said he hopes draft bylaws can be presented to the selectmen for review and presented to voters at next year's annual town meeting, if not sooner.

“I can definitely support this,” Selectmen Chairman Cory Metters said. It may be that someday Chatham voters will want to have marijuana retailers in town, but not now. Metters said he believes the community needs to be protected from such establishments and the problems they could bring. “It scares the heck out of me on a lot of levels,” he said.

Board member Jeffrey Dykens agreed, saying it would be foolish not to honor the majority vote that opposed legalizing recreational marijuana. Selectman Amanda Love, who was not present Tuesday, sent an email to the board indicating that she supports the ban on pot retailers.

“It's clearly evident that the local ballot spoke to the will of the community on this issue,” Selectman Shareen Davis said. She said the legalization of recreational marijuana is “a cultural issue, and I'm not sure that our town is really ready for this sort of shift.”

The board voted 4-0 to have counsel draft two bylaws for selectmen to consider. The zoning bylaw will also require review by the planning board.

Costello said the timing of the bylaws could be key, since it appears that the application process for certain recreational marijuana establishments opens on April 1, 2018, which would be prior to the annual town meeting. The April 1 deadline, however, appears to apply only to already-approved medicinal marijuana establishments seeking to begin recreational sales. There are no medicinal marijuana establishments in Chatham, but should it become clear that local bylaws need to be in place before April 1, Costello said he would alert selectmen so they could consider calling a special town meeting before that time.

“I'm very pleased that this is the position of the board,” resident Elaine Gibbs said. She claimed there is evidence that young people who smoke marijuana are more likely to eventually abuse opioids like heroin.

Resident Hannah Carlson also favors banning recreational pot shops to preserve not only Chatham's character but its air quality. To imagine what it might be like, “just walk around Harvard Square for a day,” she said.

Chris Ely said Chatham has earned a reputation as a family-friendly vacation destination.

“This is our economic engine,” he said. “This is the atmosphere – no pun intended – and arguably the customer base and the environment that we really need to preserve right here in Chatham.”