Zoned out

20May17

I know some people don’t like me to write about marijuana, but the subject has been in the local news a lot lately and it’s kind of my job.

Vancouver Global Marijuana March 2015 - by Danny KresnyakSo this constitutes a trigger warning for those delicate flowers of the Cannabis Community whose heads tend to explode when I write about pot. (Rest assured if I were writing pro-pot pieces they wouldn’t be accusing me of monomania. They’d be nominating me for a Pulitzer Prize.)

Last November, Massachusetts voters approved ballot Question 4, succumbing to a multimillion-dollar campaign funded by national pot industry interests. Just about everyone outside of the marijuana industry now recognizes that the law approved under Question 4 is at best a confusing muddle and at worst highly flawed.

It’s so bad that the Massachusetts Legislature had to delay the scheduled opening of retail marijuana stores by a full year while they tweak the law that the voters approved.

Normally I’m not a fan of legislators tinkering with the will of the people, but in this case the solons didn’t have much choice. Mayors, town administrators and municipal officials across the state were pleading with state lawmakers for some sort of guidance on how to deal with this disaster. It’s hard to imagine even the Massachusetts Legislature could mess things up any worse than what was voted into law last November.

The experiences of states that preceded us in legalizing recreational pot have not exactly been encouraging. Marijuana-involved traffic fatalities have doubled and teen use rates have soared. (And that’s just based on what the kiddies are willing admit on those Youth Risk Behavior Surveys. The actual rate of adolescent marijuana use is certainly much higher.)

We don’t seem to be learning much from states that have already legalized the herb. But the marijuana industry has learned plenty.

In every other state where recreational pot is legal, individual cities and towns had to “opt in” if they wanted to allow retail or other commercial weed operations in their towns. If they did nothing, it was prohibited. And what do you know, in the state of Colorado, 70 percent of cities and towns took a pass on the chance to have weed sold in stores on their Main Streets.

The pot industry noticed, so when the Massachusetts law was written, they made it so that towns had to “opt out” of allowing marijuana businesses. In other words, by default, pot shops and grow operations would be legal in all 351 Massachusetts communities unless and until an individual town specifically prohibited them.

And the industry learned another valuable lesson in other states too: Don’t make banning the bud easy.

Under the Massachusetts pot law as written, an elected mayor, city council or Board of Selectmen can’t decide that there won’t be pot businesses in town. It has to be done by a ballot measure in an election.

This was one of the aspects of the law that had municipal officials scratching their heads and looking to the legislature for help. They wondered why the decision on whether to allow pot businesses couldn’t be handled by Town Meeting like every other zoning decision.

The Massachusetts Legislature’s Committee on Marijuana Policy is now taking a serious look at changing the law to make banning marijuana businesses less cumbersome for communities.

Meanwhile, cities and towns across the state, including Wakefield, have taken a “belt and suspenders” approach to keeping pot businesses out. They are enacting Zoning measures to prohibit marijuana businesses in the hope and expectation that the legislature will change the law and allow local legislative bodies, like Town Meeting, to handle it the same way they handle other zoning regulations.

Personally, I think if Wakefield voters were asked at an election if they want to allow marijuana businesses, the answer would be a definitive “No.” Wakefield voters bucked the state trend and opposed recreational pot when it was on the statewide ballot last November. And statewide, the “Yes” vote barely got 53 percent.

Even those who are OK with the idea of legalized weed go all NIMBY at the thought of Herb’s Hemp Emporium opening up next door to their daughter’s dance studio. So I think Wakefield voters would nix it at the ballot as surely as they did at Town Meeting on May 4. And assuming the legislature does its duty, we’ll be covered by the bylaws just passed at Town Meeting.

I wish I had a dollar for every time a pothead swore on Facebook that they were going to show up at Town Meeting and defeat the proposed bylaws banning marijuana businesses. Yet somehow, the main Zoning Bylaw prohibiting marijuana businesses squeaked by, 118-22. Another zoning amendment declaring a moratorium on marijuana businesses passed by a vote of 121-4. A third prohibition bylaw passed by a similar lopsided margin.

Alas, getting out to Town Meeting requires a modicum of focus, motivation and memory. We’re already seeing that legalizing weed isn’t exactly a recipe for an engaged citizenry.

What a surprise.

[This column originally appeared in the May 19, 2017 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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