Marijuana

Last November, voters throughout Massachusetts, including most towns in the Attleboro area, voted to allow legal adult use of recreational marijuana, including commercial sales of pot.

But while it’s now legal to use and cultivate limited amounts of the hemp-based drug, the establishment of legal sales has been stalled by legislative delays and opposition from a number of communities that have approved outright bans on pot shops.

Last November, Mansfield voters approved statewide legalization. Foxboro was opposed.

Mansfield approved a temporary moratorium until Nov. 30, 2018 to allow the state to enact rules and the town to establish a provision for retail marijuana sales in its zoning bylaw.

This week, Rehoboth’s town meeting approved a moratorium that will last until Dec 31, 2018, and a zoning bylaw that will give the planning board the authority to demand a health impact study on any proposed shops.

In neighboring Foxboro, however, recent referendum and town meeting votes effectively bar marijuana sales locations within its borders. In banning pot shops, the town gives up any share of the state’s future tax revenue from marijuana sales.

The local towns are part of a growing number of communities saying no to marijuana sales, either temporarily or permanently.

According to Jeff Beckwith of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, who spoke before Rehoboth’s vote, at last count at least 39 municipalities have approved temporary moratoriums, and at least 10 have adopted outright bans. Many more votes are scheduled, either at spring town meetings or local elections.

One sobering thought for legal sales proponents, says Beckwith: So far, no ballot question proposing a local ban on sales has been defeated.

Proponents of Question 4 which authorized statewide legalization say they aren’t worried that local towns will cancel out the will of the state’s voters from last November’s approval. But they say it’s important for those who supported legalization in their communities to make their wishes known.

Shanel Lindsey, an attorney and one of the authors of the statewide ballot initiative, said she’s not surprised some towns have voted to opt out of legal marijuana sales.

“That’s one of the options we put in the initiative because we thought it was important to the passage of the question,” she said.

But while towns can legally exempt themselves from hosting marijuana shops, Lindsey said it’s important for those who supported legalization to remain active.

“The folks who support this need to be vocal to their local government to make sure their voices are heard,” she said.

Steve Schoonveld, a Mansfield selectman who has been critical of the legalization process, said uncertainty over the outcome of state legislation enabling pot shops has prompted communities to take a wait and see attitude.

“The moratoriums being passed are due to the uncertainty over what will ultimately be approved by the legislature,” he said. “It’s an uncertain and moving target and communities want to maintain control of local zoning and have a chance to review and study whether, where, or how many recreational marijuana facilities should be located in their towns.”

Schoonveld and others speculate that tax benefits from marijuana sales won’t be enough to compensate for social costs and that increased availability of pot will adversely impact young people and increase the likelihood of impaired driving.

Dr. Brian Frederick, chairman of the political science department at Bridgewater State University, said local elections that include proposals to ban retail sales tend to attract fewer voters than last year’s presidential election where citizens approved legalization in large numbers.

“Those referendums don’t necessarily reflect the feelings of a majority of the voters,” said Frederick.

Even in some towns where a majority voted in favor of legalization last fall, however, Frederick said some voters may be more inclined to oppose retail sales locations in their community.

“While voters may have favored legalization as an issue, they might be inclined to think twice about having a marijuana shop downtown,” he said.

Rick Foster can be reached at 508-236-0360.

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