Select Board member Jane Patton was the lone vote against sending a letter of non-opposition.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday voted 4-1 to send the state Department of Public Health a letter of non-opposition that clears the way for Silver Therapeutics to proceed with the licensing of a medical marijuana facility on Main Street.
The proposal has been a main topic of conversation for the board for months, and last week it hosted a public forum to gauge community reaction to Joshua Silver's proposal.
The lone holdout on Monday night made it clear that her opposition to the project is not related to Silver's plan to sell medical marijuana but by the potential Silver's business will have to transition to recreational marijuana after the commonwealth's Cannabis Control Commission finalizes the rules necessitated by 2016's statewide referendum decriminalizing pot.
"Were it not for the fact that the medical marijuana license essentially leapfrogs Mr. Silver and his group to the front of the line for a recreational license … I would be the first to say, 'I'm all in,' " Jane Patton said. "I completely support and believe in medical marijuana. I'm all about that care that helps folks, whether it's pain management or end of life management. I've read about how marijuana can help people step down from opioid abuse."
But Patton said she was unpersuaded by the oft-cited argument that the 60 percent local vote in favor of 2016's Proposition 4 necessarily meant that town officials should get out of the way of potential recreational pot businesses.
"I've heard people say over and over again, the town has spoken overwhelmingly," Patton said. "I don't think 60-40 is overwhelming. To say the Select Board supports only the 60 percent is doing a disservice to the 40 percent."
Patton indicated that she is not ready to say whether the town should have a recreational marijuana retailer and at one point expressed frustration that Williamstown is heading in that direction while the industry is in its infancy in the commonwealth.
"Why the rush when we're all sitting here visibly uncomfortable with the things we don't know?" Patton said. "I don't get it.
"It does need to be clear that this is a weight unlike any I have felt in the five years I have held this position. I'm literally nauseous feeling like I'm a part of something moving forward when we have so many unknowns around it."
Anne O'Connor, who has spoken at past meetings about her own internal debate on the question, was the first member of the Select Board on Monday to address the question before the panel and laid out her reason for favoring the non-opposition letter.
"I want to say I take seriously the concerns about youth … use of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana," O'Connor said after thanking the residents who spoke at last week's forum and/or addressed the members of the board directly. "I feel the front line of educating and working with are parents and, to some extent the schools. I feel that having a [marijuana] facility in Williamstown — I'm more skeptical that communicates a message of increased tolerance.
"I don't think kids are more attracted to alcohol or marijuana because they're legal substances." … When it comes to smaller children, the parents and grandparents have a responsibility to safeguard children. We hope they keep guns out of [children's] hands. We hope they keep their alcohol cabinets locked. … To me, it would be the same with marijuana."
Jeffrey Thomas echoed O'Connor's sentiment about pot's legalization not making it any more attractive to underage users.
"I was moved by parents' concerns about the idea that having a marijuana store here would increase youth access to marijuana, but I was not convinced by those arguments," Thomas said. "I spent some time talking to our Police Department learning about how Williamstown youth currently have access to marijuana, obviously black market marijuana.
"I talked to a friend who went to Mount Greylock in the '70s, and he affirmed that you could get it back then, and I assume it's been available in some measure ever since."
Thomas said there are legal and market forces that would prevent underage users from obtaining pot from Silver's operation, even if ends up offering recreational and medicinal pot side-by-side.
"If he was to sell to underage residents, there would be serious repercussions, and he'd be out of business," Thomas said, looking directly at Silver, who sat in the front row of the audience section of the meeting room. "The idea that someone would buy at Silver Therapeutics and sell to youth is unlikely. It's going to be more expensive. Young people are very price sensitive; that's why high taxes on tobacco are effective in reducing youth tobacco use. … Black market marijuana is always going to be cheaper.
"I acknowledge it's a concern that our youth have access to marijuana. … It's immaterial to this question. They already have access, and this isn't going to affect that."
Andrew Hogeland and Hugh Daley both alluded to comments made by resident and land-use attorney Don Dubendorf at last week's forum.
"I believe Don Dubendorf hit it on the head," Daley said. "If there are risks, the risks are coming. Let's do our best to control the risks.
"In our area, there will be this product sold. We can't drop a magic wall between us and any other community. Let's invite Mr. Silver into our community and control it as best we can."
Daley, the Select Board chair, drafted a motion for his board's consideration that would have authorized Town Manager Jason Hoch to draft a "host community agreement" with Silver Therapeutics and execute the agreement in addition to sending a letter to the Department of Public Health.
Hogeland proposed and the board ultimately decided on a 3-2 vote to amend the motion to require Hoch to present the HCA to the board prior to its execution.
Among other things, the HCA would require a 3 percent surcharge on all sales at Silver Therapeutic to help offset financial impacts to the town — including, perhaps, drug education programs in schools or increased demands on the police.
Daley and O'Connor said they both felt it was inappropriate for the Select Board to not "trust the town manager to do his job."
"I don't see my input [into the HCA] as being more relevant," O'Connor said. "I don't expect to spot any issues. I think that's why we hired the town manager."
Patton said that because the medical marijuana dispensary is "uncharted territory" for the town, it is appropriate for the Select Board to get more involved.
"I'm not going to redline the thing to death," Patton said. "But I take this responsibility extremely seriously. This is not OKing a block party. This, to me, has long-term effects of some sort."
After emphasizing that she was not questioning Hoch's competency, Patton joined Hogeland and Thomas in the 3-2 vote to amend the motion to require Hoch to bring the HCA before the Select Board, likely at its Feb. 12 meeting.
It was that amended motion that passed, 4-1.
Daley came to the Board with several other potential motions for discussion related to pot.
He first asked for a motion that the board direct Hoch to draft a warrant article for May's annual town meeting to institute a moratorium on the sale of recreational marijuana. Patton made the motion, but it failed for lack of a second.
Daley then asked if anyone wanted to move that Hoch draft a warrant article limiting the number of recreational pot licenses in town to zero or one — the only options available as limits under state law. Again, Patton made the motion, which died without a second.
Finally, Daley moved that the board direct Hoch to draft a warrant article setting a 3 percent municipal sales tax on non-medicinal pot. That motion passed, 5-0.
Hogeland came to the meeting with a couple of issues related to marijuana. He asked Hoch to look into whether the town can create a civil penalty for violation of the state regulations and whether the town can add a separate licensing process on top of the state's. He also suggested that the town's Sign Commission stay abreast of Boston's decisions regulating signage at recreational pot facilities.
"The draft CCC regulations regulate signage stringently, but they could change," Hogeland said, referring to the rules the commonwealth plans to finalize by March 15. "I want to make sure the [the town's commission] is up to speed on what state regulations are as proposed and, once they're final, decide whether it wants to propose any bylaws for town meeting."
Hogeland also said the town may need to look at whether it needs a local bylaw prohibiting on-site social consumption of marijuana.
As he has throughout the process, Hoch told the board that he is in regular communication with town counsel at the firm Kopelman & Page, which is doing its best to keep a handle on the developing regulatory framework.
"You've sent me no shortage of questions over the last couple of weeks, and I'd send one to Joel [Bard], saying, 'This is an easy one,' " Hoch said. "He would get back to me two weeks later, saying, 'That was the hard one.'
"Know that we're on shifting sands with some of this."
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