Voters will consider marijuana bylaw

  • Three people — (left to right) Athol Police Det. Peter Buck, resident Tom Henry and Herb Wheeler, owner of Flowerland — showed up for a hearing held by the Board of Planning and Community Development to finalize a zoning bylaw for Licensed Marijuana Establishments to be presented to voters on March 5. Photo by deborrah porter

Staff Writer
Monday, February 12, 2018

ATHOL — Could one entity monopolize the only two licenses that will be available for recreational marijuana facilities in town?

Members of the Board of Planning and Community Development were hoping to finalize the wording for the proposed bylaw for Licensed Marijuana Establishments, to be presented to voters at the March 5 Special Town Meeting. But, lingering questions, such as that one raised by Herb Wheeler, owner of Flowerland on Main Street, caused it to continue the public hearing to 7 p.m. on Thursday in Room 21 in Town Hall.

In addition to Wheeler, Athol Police Det. Peter Buck and two citizens attended Thursday night’s public hearing.

Board member Aimee Hanson explained that after an application for a license is approved by the state, the request comes locally to the Planning Board for approval.

“One entity could apply for both licenses as long as they pass the state process,” she said, adding the town cannot regulate who owns the licenses, and as an example, said there are no restrictions on businesses, including grocery or package stores. There are eight package store licenses in town; six are filled.

Wheeler said, “If one person owns both licenses, it could drive the prices up, and that may drive (consumers) to the black market,” he said.

In November 2016, Massachusetts voters made recreational marijuana legal. The start date for sales of recreational pot is July, and the town is working to establish local regulations before then.

A new, stand-alone bylaw, Section 3.29: Licensed Marijuana Establishments, establishes security measures to prevent adverse impacts on public health, property values, the business climate and general quality of life in the community.

Licensed establishments that involve sales, testing, cultivation, processing, distribution will be allowed only in the Central Commercial, General Commercial, and Industrial Commercial zoning districts.

Onsite consumption will not be permitted.

Hanson said a ballot vote would be required to approve any onsite consumption.

The permit cannot be reassigned or transferred, and will expire upon the termination or expiration of the applicant’s license by the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission.

If the facility goes out of business or changes hands, the new owner must go through the state application process before coming to the town.

Facilities must not be located within 500 feet from a structure used as a pre-school with outdoor play areas, licensed with the Mass. Department of Early Education and Care, or a private public school providing education in grades kindergarten through 12. Facilities must not be located within 250 feet from Alan E. Rich Environmental Park, Fish Park, Lake Ellis Park, Lake Park, Millers River Park, Silver Lake Park and the uptown common. The distance is measured by a straight line from the point of the front door of the proposed dispensary to the property line for the lot of the school structure, park, playground or other recreational area.

The hours of operation for marijuana retailers were set at 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays. These hours were recommended by Police Chief Russell Klieber. It would take another Town Meeting vote to adjust them.

An odor clause stipulates that no odor from the marijuana or its processing shall be detected by a person with unimpaired and otherwise normal sense of smell at the exterior of the establishment or at any adjoining property.

Planning Board chairman David Small said there are processes to clean the air.

“When people apply for a permit, they must show how they will comply,” he said.

A $300 fine per day will be imposed until the problem is fixed. No product or accessory paraphernalia may be visible to the general public from the exterior of the building or property line.

“This is to protect our children,” said Hanson.

As for security, each dispensary will be required to install a double-door entry system. The first door can be unlocked, but the second door must have a secured entry, and only people age 21 and older will be allowed to enter.

That raised the concern about the possibility of long lines curling outside a business. Planning board member Richard Hayden said he didn’t think that would be a problem.

Small agreed, saying, “We are not the first to get one of these establishments.”

The proposed bylaw applies only to recreational dispensaries. Medical marijuana facilities, such as the cultivation operation proposed at the L.P. Athol Corp. site at 134 Chestnut Hill Ave., are already regulated and allowed.

Also to be voted in March is a Severability Clause pertaining to licensed marijuana establishments. It allows that if any provision of the Licensed Marijuana Establishments bylaw is determined to be invalid, the remaining provisions shall remain in full effect.

Police Chief Russell Kleber said last week after the meeting that even if one person held both permits and controlled and raised the price of the product in Athol, he didn’t think the free market would stand for that.

“People would just go over to the next town.” he said, saying the black market would likely lower their prices.

Kleber is more concerned about how product is being presented. He said, “The real problem is the edibles (the flavored candy, cookies and other food options). Who’s that targeting? I don’t think the law was well thought out. It’s a drug. But it’s the law and we have to do our best to protect the retailer and the customers.”

Kleber said there are unanswered questions, such as how much product will be available and what the price will be.

“If the price goes up, it may push some people back to buying pot through illegal sources,” he said. “If you’re buying it from a retail store, you know it is processed and regulated. If you buy it on the black market, you don’t know what chemicals, pesticides or poisons are in there. That scares me. Wouldn’t people rather know what they’re buying is okay and not tainted with other drugs?”

Kleber said he has responded to events where people smoked what they thought was pot, but was in fact was mixed with an unknown substance, resulting in “a very bad experience.”

“That’s what happened during prohibition times, when people making their own alcohol were dying from it,” he said. “This is the same thing. Like with heroin. Years ago, heroin was never mixed with fentanyl or other substances — so many more overdoses occur because the drug is tainted with other poisonous substances. With legalization, if the black market can figure out a way to make pot cheaper, they will. They won’t care what they put in it. They only care about the profit.”

Town planner Eric Smith said town counsel will be asked for an opinion on the matter of whether the town could restrict the number of permits an entity could hold.

Det. Buck said Friday that the town has to be careful with how the recreational marijuana sales is handled.

“We are not setting such strict restrictions that prohibit people from buying,” he said, “but we don’t want to have a free-for-all where people can do anything they want in town.”

The police department is answering more calls pertaining to the odor of marijuana bothering people.

Buck says in classes for students and parents, attendees are warned of the dangers or any psycho psychotic drugs.

“The THC content today is far greater and different than it was in the 1980s and ‘90s.” he said. “Everyone needs to be educated in how it affects the brain.”

The town manager is working on a companion article that will impose a 20 percent tax on the products sold at recreational marijuana facilities — 17 percent goes to the state and 3 percent to the town.

Kleber has said at past meetings that he doesn’t think a downtown location is best. He would prefer to see a stand-alone location with parking and easy access.

Wheeler said he would like to see a dispensary on Main Street in the downtown.

“If you lose your Main Street, you lose the heart of your town,” he said.

He said foot traffic and interest in remaining businesses would increase.

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