HARWICH — Town officials admitted Monday night the four annual town meeting articles related to the retail sale of recreational marijuana can be a bit confusing. They were clear, however, on their united support for banning pot sales in town.
Both Police Chief David Guillemette and Town Planner Charleen Greenhalgh pointed out it is legal for residents over 21 years of age to smoke marijuana at home and to grow up to six plants.
“That ship has sailed when the state passed it,” Guillemette said.
But the ultimate question facing voters when they go into town meeting in early May is whether they want to allow the retail sale of recreational marijuana. Guillemette pointed out while the majority of voters in the commonwealth supported a referendum on recreational marijuana sales, Harwich voters rejected it by nearly 500 votes.
Last year Harwich voters put in place a moratorium on pot sales, allowing time for the town to put regulations in place governing the activity. The moratorium is scheduled to expire on June 30.
Votes will be asked in article 34 in the warrant to approve a zoning amendment prohibiting the sale of recreational marijuana in all zoning districts in the town. The zoning amendment will require a two-thirds majority vote to pass.
The next article seeks a general bylaw to ban retail pot sales and requires only a majority vote in town meeting.
Article 36 is another zoning amendment seeking to extend the existing moratorium until Dec. 31, allowing additional time to put a ban in place, if necessary. That article will also require a two-thirds majority vote.
The fourth article is a zoning amendment that would allow for the time, place and manner of retail sales by special permit in commercial zones and would require a two-thirds majority vote for passage. Greenhalgh made it clear if articles 34 and 35 pass prohibiting sales, the time/place/manner amendment will not be necessary to act upon.
Should those two articles fail, the time/place/manner bylaw, if approved, would establish regulations under which recreational marijuana could be sold in town. Greenhalgh said it would require special permit approval and be allowed only in stand-alone facilities and not allowed in buildings with other retail, commercial, residential, industrial or other uses. Sales locations would also have to be 1,000 feet away from any public or private schools, state licensed daycare centers or facilities in which children congregate. Such businesses would have to execute a host community agreement with the town.
There are concerns that should the zoning amendments fail to get a two-thirds vote and the general bylaw establishing a ban requiring a simple majority vote is approved, the Attorney General's Office may say the general bylaw is not enough to block the sale of retail marijuana, Board of Selectmen Chairman Michael MacAskill said.
Greenhalgh said as of July 1, absent any of the zoning amendments, pot sales establishments would be allowed to operate in the retail districts throughout town. Selectmen said under state regulations, a host community agreement would be required, allowing the town to impose a local tax on pot sales.
The importance of the extension of the moratorium, Town Administrator Christopher Clark said, is that it would provide time to call a special town meeting in the fall to allow the town to take additional steps if necessary.
Fire Chief Norman Clarke urged the support of the zoning amendment prohibition. He cited findings by the College of American Pediatricians on the impact of marijuana on children, including the potential for psychiatric illnesses, negative social impacts, testicular cancer and as a stepping-stone to use of more powerful drugs.
“We voted against it and it does not mean we have to subject this community to the negative impacts,” Guillemette said. He said marijuana is a gateway drug and expressed concerns for opioid use in the community. He told selectmen Harwich had its third opioid death this year just days before last year there was only one.
Guillemette said there is the potential for three major impacts to the community: a negative impact on the youth with retail allowing greater availability, the burden on public safety and potential for violent crime.
The high levels of THC contained in some items can cause serious problems in developing brains and it can predispose addition, he claimed.
If there were retail stores in town while surrounding communities ban the sale, people will be drawn to the community to purchase and use the marijuana, potentially while driving, resulting in more traffic accidents, Guillemette said.
He also expressed concern for additional burdens on public safety, referring to increases in hospital emergency room visits in Colorado and Washington. There have also been two confirmed shootings in town related to drug deals.
“We'll see more violent crime related to this,” the police chief said.
Selectman Julie Kavanagh said more police and fire personnel will be needed to deal with these conditions and the taxes generated from the retail sale will not be enough to cover the public safety costs.
“It normalizes drug use,” added Selectman Larry Ballantine.