Easthampton youth advocates urge engagement on pot questions

  • Phoebe Walker, who is the director of community services for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, speaks during a workshop on parenting in the age of legal marijuana, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018 at White Brook Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A group of people listen during a workshop on parenting in the age of legal marijuana, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018 at White Brook Middle School. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 1/30/2018 11:35:59 PM

EASTHAMPTON — As the state’s July start date for recreational marijuana sales rapidly approaches, local communities are scrambling to write their own regulations while they attempt to parse laws still being crafted at the state level.

That was the topic of conversation Tuesday at an intimate gathering of parents and some local officials at White Brook Middle School, where the Easthampton Healthy Youth Coalition hosted an event aimed at getting residents active in the decisions their town makes. A large part of the coalition’s mission is to reduce and prevent youth drug use and other risky behaviors.

“There really aren’t that many people who think to get civically involved on these issues,” Ruth Ever, the coalition’s coordinator, told the audience. “As voting people in our community, we have to stay engaged.”

The time to get civically engaged on the topic of marijuana is now. The state’s Cannabis Control Commission must finalize regulations for the legal pot industry by March 15, and is holding a series of public hearings on the draft regulations that it recently released.

There will be three hearings in western Massachusetts: Monday at 2 p.m. at Holyoke Community College, Monday at 8:30 a.m. at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, and Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the Franklin Regional Council of Governments in Greenfield.

Those meetings, however, are far from the only ways that people can influence marijuana regulations, particularly at the local level, speakers stressed Tuesday.

Phoebe Walker, the director of community services for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, gave those gathered a rundown of how local government is organized, and highlighted governmental bodies that will be regulating the marijuana industry at the local level — specifically, planning boards and boards of health.

“We know that good planning has an enormous impact on public health,” she said of planning boards, which can pass zoning bylaws or ordinances regulating things like how far a pot shop needs to be from a school, or where certain kinds of marijuana use are allowed.

Some towns have already begun the process of reviewing and amending zoning laws. Amherst, for example, is capping the total number of retail marijuana stores at eight, and the Easthampton Planning Board has been working on an ordinance that would allow for “social consumption” at establishments and would keep those establishments at least 200 feet from any school or child care center.

Local boards of health will be in charge of licensing and regulating marijuana establishments. Encouraging them to consider local regulations is a possible avenue for residents to affect local public health policy, Walker said, giving the example of many health boards in the state raising the legal age of tobacco purchase to 21.

Another avenue that people may not be aware of are “host community agreements,” which, under the current draft regulations, marijuana establishments are required to enter into with municipalities before even applying for a license.

“This is an important opportunity,” Walker said, adding that every marijuana establishment will also have to host a community outreach hearing before applying. “You can negotiate as part of this proposed host community agreement.”

What that negotiation looks like will vary with each establishment and municipality, but local government will have to sign off on those agreements. Walker said those agreements would include payments for costs incurred by a municipality — like compliance checks at establishments, for example — and other regulations on that establishment. They could include many things, however, like funding for local drug prevention efforts, Walker suggested.

For residents interested in having their voice heard on what local marijuana rules will look like, Walker recommended engaging with local health boards and town governments, attending establishments’ public outreach meetings and tracking host community agreements with those establishments.

How to interact with local government is an altogether different issue. Tamara Smith, a former city councilor, informed the audience of strategies for dealing with local officials.

A big part of being heard by — and being helpful to — public officials is asking specific questions that they are actually in a position to answer. Getting upset about state regulations they aren’t in a place to control, for example, will get you nowhere.

Smith gave the example of someone wanting to know about local regulations on marijuana edibles. Instead of just asking a city councilor, “What are the dangers of edibles?” a constituent should ask, “What protections are being put in place for this particular vulnerable population?”

Another suggestion was collecting signatures for a citizens petition, which with 100 signatures must then be put on a city agency’s agenda.

“This is a move we’re not using as a community,” she said. “It’s a powerful tool.”

Several city councilors were actually in the room for the event, hoping to listen to parents and to learn things themselves. Some parents have concerns, said Salem Derby, who chairs the council’s ordinance subcommittee. He and his fellow councilors were there partly to hear those out.

“We’re here just to listen, to get more informed before we make decisions,” said Homar Gomez, another City Council member.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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