Law says voters decide on pot shop ban in Hampshire, Franklin counties


For the Gazette

Published: 07-23-2017 9:56 AM

NORTHAMPTON — No community in Hampshire or Franklin counties would be allowed to ban recreational marijuana facilities without an affirmative vote by referendum.

A bill approved by the Legislature last week and awaiting Gov. Charlie Baker’s signature made two key changes to the law legalizing recreational marijuana use, also known as Question 4, which voters supported in November.

First, the total tax on retail marijuana purchases would be raised to 20 percent, and a five-member Cannabis Control Commission would be made responsible for oversight of both recreational and medical marijuana industry in the state.

Second, the bill would also change how cities and towns could ban or severely restrict recreational marijuana facilities in their communities.

In communities that voted for the legalization of recreational marijuana on the ballot last November, the matter of banning marijuana sales locally would require a referendum vote. This applies to all cities and towns in Hampshire and Franklin counties.

But in cities and towns that voted against Question 4, locally elected officials could decide to ban or restrict marijuana establishments without a vote.

“The legislation has taken a long time to emerge, and we need time to decide, based on those guidelines, what is best for our communities,” South Hadley Town Administrator Mike Sullivan said. “Cities will, of course, have questions about what they can and can’t do now.”

Under the timeline set by the Legislature, the first cannabis shops could open in Massachusetts next July.

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Two communities in Hampshire County, South Hadley and Hadley, have put moratoriums on recreational marijuana outlets, but officials in those communities said these measures were put in place temporarily until the state had decided on regulations.

“We can’t craft a zoning bylaw, or decide whether we want to, until we can see what the state’s framework looks like,” Bill Dwyer, clerk of the Hadley Planning Board, said. “We did the same for medical marijuana use when that happened.”

Holyoke also attempted a moratorium, but it was vetoed by the mayor, said Rory Casey, the mayor’s chief of staff.

While no community in Hampshire and Franklin counties could ban retail marijuana shops without a referendum vote, four communities in Hampden County — Hampden, Ludlow, East Longmeadow and West Springfield — voted against Question 4.

That means government leaders in those communities could ban recreational marijuana establishments with no other input.

It’s still possible for communities like South Hadley, which narrowly approved Question 4, 4,779 to 4,445, to pass bans or restrictions.

“There have obviously been a lot of strong feelings on both sides of the issue in South Hadley, and if a group felt strongly enough about it, a petition for a vote could certainly be brought forward pretty quickly,” Sullivan said. “I haven’t heard about it from anyone in South Hadley yet, but I’ve certainly seen other communities start thinking about that process already.”

Dwyer said he doubted a vote would be considered in Hadley.

“I haven’t heard a peep about it,” Dwyer said. “Legalization passed pretty strongly here, so even if there were to be a vote, I can’t see it going through.”

Holyoke, like South Hadley, is a little more likely to see a vote come up, Casey said. He said the attempted moratorium in Holyoke was brought forward partially because several city councilors oppose legalization.

The moratorium was vetoed by the mayor because the city doesn’t want to discourage potential new local businesses, Casey said.

“It wouldn’t be a surprise to me if a vote was brought up,” Casey said. “But the vote passed by a pretty wide margin when it was on the ballot last November, so even if there’s a vote, I doubt it will pass.”

Lori Hafner, 53, a Holyoke resident who works in South Hadley, said she anticipated at least one community in the area would vote on bans or restrictions.

“It seemed to me that things moved pretty fast,” Hafner said. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if people eventually stepped back to reconsider.”