South Hadley to vote on ban of recreational marijuana establishments

Ban would apply to all non-medical businesses

  • South Hadley town officials listen to feedback on a bylaw amendment that would ban all commercial marijuana establishments in the community at the Jan. 10 special Town Meeting. Article 6 passed by a 44-37 majority vote, and will put the question on the ballot for the townwide municipal election in April. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • State Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, speaks at a special Town Meeting Wednesday, Jan. 10. Scibak is in favor of a bylaw amendment that would ban all commercial marijuana establishments in the community. Article 6 passed by a 44-37 majority vote, and will put the question on the ballot for the townwide municipal election in April. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

Staff Writer
Published: 1/10/2018 11:58:38 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — South Hadley will be the first community in Hampshire County to vote in a townwide election on whether to ban all recreational marijuana establishments within its borders.

At a special Town Meeting Wednesday night, meeting members voted 44-37 in favor of Article 6, seeking to amend a town general bylaw banning all types of marijuana establishments consistent with the state’s recreational marijuana law (MGL c. 94G). These include the “commercial cultivation, retails sales, testing, manufacturing, packaging, distribution or any other type of licensed cannabis/marijuana related business,” according to the meeting warrant.

The measure to ban such establishments now must be approved in a town election set for April.

“I am extremely pleased to have the chance to see our voters speak to local control,” said Karen Walsh-Pio, coalition coordinator for the South Hadley Drug & Alcohol Prevention Coalition. “I am interested in educating them ... because a lot of people feel like they didn’t have enough information.”

The coalition favors a ban on sales because her organization is concerned about marijuana use among youth, Walsh-Pio said.

Three proposed bylaw amendments governing recreational marijuana were addressed at Wednesday's meeting.

One zoning bylaw drafted by the Planning Board, Article 5, passed with a two-thirds majority regulating any future marijuana manufacturing or retail establishments. The restrictions include limiting the number of establishments to three, keeping them at least 300 feet from residential areas and public schools and restricting hours of operation.

Articles 4 and 6, pushed forward by the Select Board, banned the establishments outright.

Article 4, which would have banned commercial marijuana establishments from a zoning perspective, failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to pass, with 44 votes in favor and 33 against.

If Article 6 passes in April, the ban would remain in place indefinitely — rendering Article 5 moot unless similar steps are taken to repeal it.

Town Planner Richard Harris drafted Article 4 at the request of the Select Board. Wednesday night, Select Board Chairwoman Sarah Etelman stressed that the board did not endorse any of the amendments, but that members wanted to present the question to the town.

“In the last few days and weeks the federal government has had a reawakening about this issue,” Town Administrator Michael Sullivan said. “It is really hard for a community to plan when our superiors are not clear about the (regulations).”

Dr. Robert Abrams, a South Hadley pediatrician and founder of Holyoke Pediatric Associates, made a motion to postpone the vote on the three marijuana-related articles to allow residents more time to make an educated decision.

Sullivan and Harris said that they were working on a strict timeline, and if the town failed to pass the regulations before April 15, they would risk relying on state regulations alone.

“It makes sense for towns to exert our right to have this be more of a home-rule decision that was stripped of towns because the bill was so industry-friendly,” said Heather Warner, a member of the Strategic Planning Initiative for Families and Youth, who partners with Walsh-Pio.

Abrams’ motion failed by 20 votes against to 15 in favor.

Article 4 failing to pass in no way weakens Article 6, said Walsh-Pio, and she does not know why the two warrant articles were necessary.

“The language under these motions are recommended to communities and our town by the attorney general’s office,” town attorney Edward Ryan said.

State Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, spoke in favor of the ban at Wednesday’s meeting, saying that the state’s 2016 ballot question was not an ideal way to establish sound policy. Abrams agreed, and said more education is needed as to how marijuana affects youth development and its implications in the opioid epidemic.

“My concern about banning this is that we are cutting ourselves off at the knees for the opportunity for tax revenue,” Town Meeting member Liz Austin said. “This industry of marijuana establishments is incredibly lucrative and I think we should give our town the opportunity to vote on this, but I just wanted to say my concern is for the position of tax revenue.”

“We have no idea what the revenue is going to be like statewide,” Scibak responded.

Town Meeting member Marilyn G. Ishler also brought up the issue of revenue.

“Do we realize how much money we are possibly losing with this vote?” she said. “I thought that if the town voted for legalizing marijuana, we could not not permit it.”

By state law, communities like South Hadley that voted in favor of legalization in November 2016 can only ban such businesses within their borders with approval from voters.

South Hadley voters approved recreational marijuana by a narrow margin, 4,779 to 4,445. Statewide, voters legalized recreational marijuana by a majority 53.6 percent.

In December 2016 the town voted to place a moratorium on the establishment of any commercial marijuana operations until July 1, 2017. In May, it voted again to extend the moratorium until July 1, 2018.

Regardless of whether the amendment passes, it will not infringe on residents’ rights to use marijuana, or to cultivate it for personal use.

 “I didn’t kno w if I would see this in my lifetime,” said Mike Regish, 64, a South Hadley resident listening in on the meeting.

Editor’s Note: This story was changed on Jan. 11, 2018, to clarify that the proposed amendment only applies to marijuana not medically prescribed.

 


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