HANSON — Voters were reminded during the Tuesday, Sept. 25 Board of Selectmen’s meeting, that it will take a “yes” vote on a Nov. 6 local ballot question to prevent retail marijuana sales in town.
There will also be two ballots, requiring separate check-ins, as local questions must be on a different ballot than the one for the state’s midterm election.
But first, the issue will crop up again on the Monday, Oct. 1 special Town Meeting warrant, in two articles — Article 21, which amends the town’s general Bylaws and requires a simple majority vote, and Article 22, which amends the zoning Bylaws and requires a two-thirds vote — aimed at prohibiting retail sales in town.
Town Counsel Katherine Feodoroff, of Mead, Talerman & Costa LLC, attended the meeting to review the meaning of the articles and ballot questions during a half-hour forum on the issue.
“The board wanted to have a question-and-answer session prior to Town Meeting, in case anybody had any questions on this,” said Selectmen Chairman Kenny Mitchell.
Feodoroff said both a zoning Bylaw and general Bylaw were passed at the last Town Meeting to regulate marijuana establishments.
“But there was a feeling that, perhaps, the town wanted to consider prohibiting marijuana retailers,” she said. “As a consequence, we put together an amendment to the Bylaw that was recently passed to prohibit marijuana retailers in the town.”
A complicating issue is that, when the town voted on the state ballot question regarding the legalization of recreational marijuana, the town’s voters came down on the side favoring the question, so this issue must also go on a ballot as well as before Town Meeting.
“To prohibit marijuana in the town of Hanson, you have to vote yes on the legislation,” Feodoroff said. “It’s a little bit counter-intuitive, but you are voting yes on the Bylaw, which serves as a prohibition.”
She assured residents that questions have been clearly written — at the urging of Selectman Jim Hickey — so voters will better understand what their vote will do.
Police Chief Michael Miksch and Fire Chief Jerome Thompson were asked what special training their departments would need to address the use of recreational marijuana.
Thompson said, while inspection requirements may be different, he does not anticipate much change in how patient care is delivered.
“It’s going to depend on what happens around us,” Miksch said. “One way or another I have to start training people on a thing called ARRIVE (Advanced Roadside Interdiction training), to cut down people driving impaired.”
The state just began rolling out training information, but he estimates it could cost about $8,000 to train his officers, and it may have to be done numerous times.
Host community portions of the wholesale/testing facilities regulations would provide a 3 percent levy on their sales to fund police security and training relating to the business.
“I don’t know the cost until I see the situation.” He said, noting that he does not need to place a detail officer at a package store. But, should retail marijuana be allowed in town, there are now only one or two banks in the state willing to work with the businesses.
“That’s a very big concern for host communities, as far as security goes, because basically you’ve got to make sure these places have more security than a bank — because they are a bank,” Miksch said.
“It’s a heavy cash business,” Feodoroff said. The marijuana retailers are not now able to obtain merchant accounts at most banks.
Town Administrator Michael McCue said he anticipates that a pending contract for a cell phone tower at Hanson Middle School property, if approved by Town Meeting, could bring in as much as $50,000 in the first year alone — mitigating the effect of any marijuana tax money lost if the town votes to prohibit retail sales.
Resident Bruce Young asked if a Town Meeting vote on the zoning Bylaw fails to meet the two-thirds requirement, wouldn’t render a ballot question pointless.
“I’m assuming that, unless the Town Meeting votes for both of those articles, it makes the election article vote absolutely moot,” he said.
Feodoroff replied that it is not a yes or no question. State legislation governs what towns can and cannot do, distinguishing zoning Bylaws but not general Bylaw functions. She said the town counsel firm believes a general Bylaw can serve to prohibit any form of marijuana if a town wished to prohibit it.
“We wanted to be very cautious and put in the zoning Bylaw measure because there’s a long list of cases that stand for the proposition that, if it looks like a zoning bylaw but only went through the process of a general bylaw Bylaw passage … [the state] struck those Bylaws down because they looked like zoning bylaws,” she said.
While zoning Bylaws can guarantee prohibition, if it fails, the issue still goes to the election ballot and if both pass, the town can vote on a zoning bylaw again at another special Town Meeting, or the town can rely on the amended general Bylaw. The latter option does carry the risk of litigation.
“None of the Bylaws have been challenged yet,” Feodoroff said. “We’re not in a position to know whether or not the court is going to demand that it be a zoning vs. a general bylaw.”
New resident Wayne Peterson asked, since the town passed the issue on the state ballot, how the prohibition effort is not just an attempt to push an unpopular opinion through with a smaller voter turnout. He noted that, while a midterm election would attract more voters than a local election, it would not be as great a turnout as a presidential election year like 2016.
Feodoroff said the legislation permits it since towns may have voted for recreational marijuana as a general issue, the “I don’t want it in my backyard” mindset led many communities to change their minds.
“The state has already spoken, the voters have already spoken, and passed it overwhelmingly,” he said of the town. “Now you’re going to an election with much smaller turnout to get the reaction that you want.”
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes, attending the meeting for the Town Meeting preview, compared the ballot initiative to towns in the state that opted to remain dry when the prohibition of alcohol was repealed or zoning bylaws governing adult entertainment businesses.
Personal consumption of marijuana remains permitted by state law. The use of marijuana while driving is still illegal, as is any form of impaired driving.