ORLEANS — “A house divided against itself, cannot stand,” Abraham Lincoln said in 1858. Yet that's what town meeting did Oct. 29, standing to vote on an article banning recreational marijuana sales and illuminating a deep divide in the community.
After more than an hour of passionate, sometimes tearful argument, voters approved the ban by 270 to 255. Then they amended and passed by voice vote rules and regulations for other marijuana enterprises such as research, transportation and cultivation. An article that would have allowed small-scale cultivation in residential districts was approved 166 to 102, but that was less than the two-thirds required for passage.
More than marijuana was on the minds of voters. They debated the state of the shoreline and options for protecting it, including whether town officials were doing enough to win political support for action, before approving a $1.2 million phase of the Nauset Beach Retreat Master Plan and Facility Relocation with a loud “aye” on a voice vote. A silent vote will be required at the polls Nov. 6 to OK bonding for the project as a debt exclusion.
A second vote on Nov. 6 will be needed to pay the town's share of final demolition costs for the closed Tri-Town Septage Facility. Town meeting offered unanimous support for the $713,000 expenditure.
Voters agreed to replace water meters with new units utilizing cellular technology at a cost of $1.98 million, but not before quizzing DPW/Natural Resources Director Tom Daley on the need and expense. A two-thirds vote was required, and a standing count delivered a 454 to 58 majority in favor.
Moderator David Lyttle had announced he would start the meeting as soon as the quorum of 200 was reached, and things got under way promptly at 6:35 p.m. with some voters still waiting to check in. The final count was 576, a 10 percent turnout, not all of whom made it to the 10:22 p.m. finish line.
Not even a Patriots game starting at 8:15 p.m. deterred voters from listening to the debate on the retail marijuana sales ban, which lasted almost until 9 p.m. After a preamble by Town Counsel Michael Ford that reviewed state legislation as well as all three related articles on the warrant, Steve Bornemeier, an organizer of the petition to ban, made his case.
“Banning pot shops will help preserve the longstanding Orleans traditions of quality of life, including our focus on the well-being of young children,” he said. “The focus is on public safety and public health. There is no effect on the legality of personal use and cultivation, on the legality of medical marijuana.” He urged “a healthy skepticism” about claims of a tax windfall from retail sales.
Speaking for his board, which was unanimous in opposition to the ban, Selectman Kevin Galligan reviewed the state and local permitting process and the extensive public hearings and review of regulations undertaken by the planning board. “The selectmen voted to approve a careful start to all types of marijuana establishments,” he said.
The finance committee voted to oppose the ban by 2-4. Speaking for the minority, Bob Renn said the retail stores would “not add benefits to our business districts or quality of life in our downtown.” He noted that the proposed ban would not block other recreational marijuana enterprises such as cultivation and transportation.
Colleague Peter Monger said he was “convinced that having retail establishments, particularly in the downtown business district, will be of great benefit to Orleans.” Besides the income the town would derive, he said, there would be well-paying jobs. Not having recreational sales, he said, would be tantamount to having “CVS or Rite Aid just sell prescription drugs... Without over the counter and retail sales, they wouldn't be in town.”
Before the debate began, Lyttle asked that two non-residents, Police Chief Scott MacDonald and David Cohen, principal of licensed marijuana retailer Holistic Industries, be allowed to speak, and the meeting agreed. Cohen, who said he'd been visiting Orleans for the last 30 summers, said the town is among the communities his company is considering for business. He spoke of the “significant resources” that Holistic invests “in building out our locations and training our local workforce,” and noted that, “in our experience, a medical-only dispensary cannot operate successfully in an adult use environment.” Cohen noted “significant competition” from Brewster, Eastham and Provincetown for retail sales.
“Chatham isn't having it,” the next speaker said. “We're always in competition with them. They really are smarter.” When she started to insult Cohen personally, the meeting shouted her down.
Another voter was concerned about middle school students who could hang around outside a marijuana retailer on their way to the Hot Chocolate Sparrow and ask someone to buy pot for them. She said research has shown that use before the age of 18 can result in impairment.
“This is not the stuff of the 'Reefer Madness' movies of the 1930s,” said Janine Corsano, a pharmacist who spoke of the many helpful applications of cannabis.
Noting that his role was “certainly not to urge you to vote one way or the other,” Chief MacDonald reported on his research. It appears, he said, that retail sales had not caused “a significant increase in the crime rate as it pertains to the area surrounding retail establishments... (but) a slight increase in property crime.” He said he toured a cultivation factory in Milford in June. “It was impressive,” he said. “It essentially was a laboratory (with) strict security protocols and inventory control.”
MacDonald said the state chiefs association had been concerned that marijuana sales would be a cash-only business, given that sales are still illegal at the federal level and that banks will not handle the trade. Recently, however, a credit union in Gardner has agreed to work with the industry. “Driving while drugged (remains) a serious issue,” said the chief, who pointed to the lack of technology for assessing intoxication and impairment among marijuana consumers.
Before the vote, Lyttle said that people on both sides of the issue had asked him to hold a secret ballot, a step that, under the charter, is at his discretion. He was opposed to the idea but asked town meeting if anyone wanted to make a motion, adding, “This will most likely result in taking an additional hour of our time to go through the process.” The motion for a paper ballot was made, and defeated with a loud “No!”
Town meeting also found time to approve $125,000 to help acquire a portion of Nauset Spit and the Hannah Meadow property in Nauset Harbor for open space and recreation, a step in resolving a longstanding ownership controversy. It took another step toward allowing some town assets such as the transfer station and beaches to be operated as town enterprise funds, setting up a final vote at the May 2019 town meeting.