Norman Burdick tells the Select Board that medicinal marijuana had helped his quality of life.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — After nearly two hours of discussion about the market, the legal framework and the mechanics of running a medical marijuana dispensary, resident Norman Burdick said his piece at Monday's Select Board meeting.
"A lot of people my age — you want the last few years of your life to have a little quality of life," Burdick said. "I wasn't having it, and I know some other people my age who weren't.
"It's something long, long overdue. I can't see anything but good coming from it."
Burdick told the board he never tried marijuana until he was 85 but now has a card allowing him to purchase medicinal marijuana.
If a New York-based entrepreneur has his way, Burdick will be able to make those purchases in his own town.
Joshua Silver of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was before the Select Board on Monday seeking a "letter of non-opposition" regarding his proposed registered marijuana dispensary for the Colonial Plaza on Main Street.
Silver, the founder and CEO of Silver Therapeutics, brought several members of his team to Town Hall to explain how he hopes to establish an indoor cultivation facility in the Franklin County town of Orange and a dispensary at the other end of the Mohawk Trail (Route 2) in the Village Beautiful.
Silver explained the heavy regulations Massachusetts has established for medical pot, and Bill Camp of the Boston-based Flying Locksmiths security consultant explained how security cameras, alarms and limited access to the selling floor will help keep such a facility concern.
But no one in the room could answer the biggest question on the minds of the Select Board members: Would an established medical dispensary be grandfathered into a license for selling recreational pot?
The town in May established a zoning bylaw to regulation the location of retail marijuana — both recreational and medicinal. But at the time, the bylaw was pitched as precautionary measure to say where such establishments theoretically could be with the understanding the town still could decide whether it wanted to ban any such sales within town lines.
The Select Board has been trying to learn about the pros and cons of allowing recreational sales since May and as recently as Monday discussed forming a ballot question that would allow residents to settle the ban question once and for all during May 2018's town election and annual town meeting.
The question asked by members of the board and residents addressing the meeting from the floor on Monday was whether the establishment of a medical facility takes the possibility of a recreational facility ban off the table.
"If the board sends a letter of non-opposition, is that for medical marijuana only or does that automatically mean that when the state decides how to manage recreational marijuana [Silver Therapeutics] will be a recreational dispensary?" Adrian Dunn asked the board.
"In this context, it means they can go ahead with medical," Select Board member Andrew Hogeland replied. "The question is how automatic is the conversion [to recreational]. Your question is our question."
Town Manager Jason Hoch indicated to the the board that he could not yet provide clarity on the conversion question. The commonwealth's Cannabis Control Commission, created by the Legislature after the November 2016 passage of a statewide ballot initiative decriminalizing marijuana, is in the process of writing rules to govern retail sales.
The Select Board took no action on the non-opposition letter on Monday and decided to hold a community forum on the medical dispensary proposal in January, when the board members hope to have some clarity on the "conversion" question.
For his part, Silver was upfront about his intention to convert his business to a recreational facility if and when the option is available.
He cited the town's 60-40 vote on 2016's Proposition 4 as one reason why he decided put his dispensary in Williamstown and said the market for recreational pot was three times what he could realize in medicinal marijuana.
He did say he has market research showing a medicinal-only location could be profitable in Williamstown but admitted the numbers could change if a retail shop opened nearby.
Select Board member Jeffrey Thomas asked Silver why all medical dispensaries wouldn't disappear once retail pot was readily available. Silver answered that there is a financial reason to obtain one's marijuana by prescription because it is taxed at a lower rate and in Colorado there are retailers who have clearly defined floor space for the medical and recreational business.
Select Board member Jane Patton pressed Silver on whether medical marijuana was open to abuse, citing secondhand knowledge from a family member who learned how easy it was to obtain a medical marijuana card in California, "when he has no need for one at all."
"What is the failsafe on these cards and making sure they're legitimate," Patton said. "We're in a college town. … What are the ways in which they can be regulated?
"If someone needs this for a medical condition, I'd drive them [to the dispensary]. But what's the failsafe there?"
Silver explained how Massachusetts' system is designed to combat fraud.
"One of the most unique things about the medical marijuana program is there's an online database that you're not only entered into when you apply for your card but you're checked against when you enter the store," Silver said. "We train our agents to run the database and check the IDs.
"And the database tracks how much you've purchased, too. So you can't go to a dispensary on the other side of the state [and buy more than medically necessary]."
Silver told the board that he already has a one-year lease on the Colonial Village storefront in hopes of obtaining his medical dispensary license from the commonwealth. Part of that approval process is the letter — either support or non-opposition — from the municipality. And he would like to have the town's blessing by late January in order to get the ball rolling on his cultivation facility in the Pioneer Valley.
The Select Board invited Silver and his team back for the public forum on a date to be determined after the first of the year and agreed not to make any decisions on the letter until after hearing from the public — and, the board hopes, after it has clarity on the conversion question.
"I just hope this does go somewhere eventually," Burdick told the board. "If it looks like it will, I'll hang on long enough to make use of it."
In other business on Monday, the Select Board voted 5-0 to extend an option agreement between Pittsfield's Berkshire Housing and the town on the former PhoTech mill property at 330 Cole Ave. Hoch explained that given the recent uncertainty in the federal tax code and, with it, the market for the tax credits that finance affordable housing projects, it is unclear when Berkshire Housing will be able to secure the financing it needs to move forward on developing subsidized housing on the site.
In the meantime, the work is under way on remediation at the site by means of a $200,000 grant the town received from the Environmental Protection Agency. The board agreed to extend the option, which was set to expire this month, through the end of 2018.
The board also finalized its annual review of Hoch and approved the spring town election calendar. Nomination papers will be available at Town Hall starting Feb. 1 and are due back with signatures by March 20. There will be up to seven offices on the ballot, including one seat, Anne O'Connor's, on the Select Board.
Technically, two "three-year" seats will be on the ballot for the Williamstown Elementary School Committee, but since that committee will dissolve on July 1 when authority over PreK-6 education transitions fully to the Mount Greylock Regional School District, it is uncertain how much interest that race will generate. All seven spots on the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee will be on the ballot in Williamstown and Lanesborough in November 2018.
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