Recreational marijuana vote coming to Athol on March 5

  • The L.P. Athol Corp. property along the Millers River and railroad tracks, a former tool factory erected from 1899 to the 1950s, could be home for a large pot farm someday. Or, its 360,000 square feet could be developed for something else. The website www.loopnet.com offers this aerial view photo and a lot more. Contributed Photo

  • Allen Young

Athol Daily News
Tuesday, February 27, 2018

An important town meeting vote on zoning for recreational marijuana is coming up on March 5. To pass, it needs a two-thirds majority — and that can be a challenge. I agree with the Planning Board, town manager and other community leaders that a “yes” vote will herald progress for the town and the region.

I think those who are inclined to vote “no” are being influenced by irrational fear of this drug, a simple plant, also known by its Latin name, cannabis. Once commonly sold in apothecaries, it was outlawed in the early 20th century and denounced as a dangerous narcotic, which scientists affirm is false. The status of pot is clearly changing, state by state, though federal law remains in effect with uncertain enforcement.

There has been legal medical marijuana in Massachusetts for several years, and this has not been a problem. Recreational marijuana, governed by separate laws, was approved in a 2016 referendum by voters — with a solid majority statewide and in North Quabbin region towns, including Athol.

Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C., allow marijuana for medical purposes. Recreational marijuana is legal in nine states and the nation’s capital. I have not seen any news reports about abuse and horrible things happening in places such as Colorado and Washington State, where recreational marijuana has been legal since 2012 and where the governors have shown enthusiasm for its success.

Many adults who have been compelled to make their purchases underground would prefer to go to a regulated retail outlet, and that’s what this zoning revision will allow. There are honest entrepreneurs who want to enter this business, which is growing nationwide.

Mark Wright, executive director of the North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce, said he supports the zoning provision “primarily from a commerce point of view.”

Indeed, why should successful businesses selling pot, and the tax revenue such sales bring, be located in other municipalities when we can have them here?

Town Manager Shaun Suhoski and Planning Board Chairman Dave Small also hope for a “yes” vote. These people are pragmatic, responsible community leaders, not aging hippies.

Suhoski emailed the following comment for this column at my request: “I believe it is important for the town to offer voters a reasonable zoning framework to regulate the new retail opportunities relative to adult-use marijuana,” he said. “A simple majority of Athol voters have expressed their intentions at the ballot box and, in my opinion, the fairly basic zoning article recommended through the Planning Board will establish a clear field of play for potential new business ventures. I have also requested that an article accepting the local excise of 3 percent of gross sales be considered by Town Meeting as a potential revenue stream from this new industry. I remain hopeful that Athol will be able to benefit from the marijuana industry, but in a measured and managed fashion.”

Small emailed this comment: “A majority of Athol voters passed the recreational marijuana referendum. The goal of the Planning Board has been to figure out how to make it work for this community,” he said. “This has been an interesting process, as final regulations have not been set by the Cannabis Control Commission, which has made this somewhat of a moving target. The board has taken in all the comments and opinions, legal and personal, and come up with a fair bylaw protecting the rights of neighbors and neighborhoods, while providing a positive environment for entrepreneurs.”

One person especially interested in the “environment for entrepreneurs” is Cindy Hartwell, daughter of World War II veteran Bill Purple. Members of the Purple family, including Cindy, her father, her husband, Chuck, and her brother, Philip, have expressed hope that the L.P. Athol complex might be sold to a developer interested in growing marijuana there.

They were in negotiations with such a developer, but to date there has been no action. During an Oct. 17 meeting, selectmen voted 4-1 for the letter of non-opposition to the cultivation, manufacturing and extraction facility, such as could happen in the L.P. Athol complex. That is the former Union Twist Drill factory, which Bill Purple and a partner purchased three decades ago.

Cindy commented, “It’s time for us to get a developer with experience to take this property on to its next life, and certainly one promising use is for cannabis cultivation and processing. It’s a great asset. We’re hopeful. A number of people have shown interest, but we haven’t heard back from them yet; however, these things take time. The town is very smart in welcoming the cannabis industry, because it could be a good economic boost and really bring in high-quality jobs.”

Based on experience elsewhere, a cultivation and processing operation in a facility the size of the L.P. Athol property could generate 200-plus well-paying jobs. The cultivation of plants would be indoors, and there would be related processing facilities.

The vote on March 5 is about zoning for recreational marijuana, not medical, but the town’s attitude, which would be evidenced by the vote, could be key. An indicator of the importance of all this is the State House News Forum’s announcement of its second “marijuana summit” on March 2 at 10 Winter Place in Boston.

The forum will explore ways to “make sense of the arrival of recreational marijuana, an industry that may soon exceed $1 billion annually, in this suddenly volatile environment.” The event will bring together “entrepreneurs, leaders and regulators to explain the opportunities and challenges of recreational marijuana in Massachusetts.” Information is available from Alex Dalsey at: adalsey@statehousenews.com.

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