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Editorial: Time to prepare for recreational marijuana

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Friday, November 24, 2017

“Winter is coming,” murmur House of Stark characters in “Game of Thrones.” So is recreational pot in Massachusetts. Has your community taken its measure?

It’s an issue that should bring the same laser-focused attention for the Valley as the apprehensions about a harsh season bring to the fictional inhabitants of Westeros.

Cannabis Control Commissioner Jennifer Flanagan brought this message to a recent Franklin County Chamber of Commerce meeting: “The most important thing I want you to know is that communities have got to get involved in this, because this is coming to your town.”

What’s coming is this: By April, the state expects to start receiving license applications from those who want to grow, process, package or sell pot, and by July those facilities will start to open and legally sell marijuana. This prospect has, or should have, local leaders weighing the receipt of tax revenues from retail stores and growers against predictions of children consuming pot-laced edibles.

Since January, in a “not in my back yard” dynamic, communities across the state,  including several in the Valley, have imposed at least 121 bans or other constraints on marijuana-related businesses, at least temporarily, according to the Associated Press.

Hadley and South Hadley are among the towns that adopted moratoriums. At the annual Town meeting in May, Hadley voters imposed a moratorium on recreational sales through Nov. 30, 2018, and agreed to adopt a 2 percent local option tax when pot sales are finally allowed.

When South Hadley Town Meeting voted for a moratorium in May, Select Board member Ira J. Brezinsky said it allows the town “to continue to take a breather until we and the state can determine exactly what regulations are to be part of the state level and subsequently on a local level.”

Already, a backlash of sorts is emerging in the state, as a number of communities are bucking the wave of bans and moratoriums that followed voter approval of legal recreational pot.

On Cape Cod, Brewster voters Nov. 13 rejected a proposed ban on marijuana commerce and voted down a moratorium that would have kept recreational cannabis businesses away until 2019. Amesbury voters similarly chose to keep their city open to the growing legal marijuana industry.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said Nov. 15, at the Massachusetts Marijuana Summit hosted by State House News Service, that he expects many of the 100-plus cities and towns that have imposed some type of restriction on cannabis commerce will ultimately host some aspect of the new industry. As reported by State House News Service, towns “just want to get it right,” says Rosenberg, citing the “go slow” approach his hometown of Amherst is taking.

During Town Meeting earlier this month, Amherst capped the number of retail outlets at eight and established a 3 percent local option tax, the maximum allowed under state law. Voters also adopted a local bylaw prohibiting the consumption of marijuana in public places.

Select Board member Connie Kruger said the measures are the most responsible way for Amherst to prepare for retail marijuana sales in 2018, ahead of the state’s Cannabis Control Commission regulations that are due March 15.

Rosenberg would take communities of 5,000 or fewer people off the list of potential sites for a marijuana shop, simply because the population is too small to support it. But in order to generate the kind of tax revenue necessary to fund the Cannabis Control Commission and to reduce the black market as much as possible, Massachusetts needs “enough distribution across the state so people who want the product can reasonably access it,” he said.

The Cannabis Control Commission says it wants to hear concerns from mayors and other local officials now, while it is in the midst of writing its regulations. “Our job is not to tell the cities and towns what to do,” said Steven Hoffman, chairman of the commission. “Our job is just to make sure they’re fully informed.”

We encourage all communities to get ahead of this new and potentially significant industry. Local leaders must decide how precisely to participate in this new world of legal marijuana.