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Vote on retail cannabis in Middlebury is sought

DAVE SILBERMAN

It’s time for us to take cannabis sales out of the high school parking lots and into a store where the seller checks ID, provides a label that says what’s in the product, and where the product undergoes testing.
— Dave Silberman

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury attorney and newly elected Addison County High Bailiff Dave Silberman on Nov. 17 will ask the selectboard to place a referendum on the 2021 Town Meeting Day ballot asking residents if they’ll allow cannabis retailers to operate in town beginning in 2022.
Should the board decline to place the cannabis question on the March ballot, Silberman said he’ll file a citizens petition to force the vote. He’s already begun gathering the requisite 5% of registered voter signatures in Middlebury (he’ll need around 300), and is confident he’d be able to gather “more than enough” by the filing deadline in January.
“This is simply an effort to hold a vote on whether or not the town should allow cannabis stores,” Silberman said. “Once those stores are approved, the town can regulate them through zoning.”
Act 164 — which passed into law earlier this year without the signature of Gov. Phil Scott — creates the Cannabis Control Board for the purpose of regulating cannabis production and sale in Vermont. Participating in the legal cannabis market will require licensing by the newly created board. Six types of licenses will be available: cultivator, wholesaler, product manufacturer, testing laboratory, retailer, and integrated licensee. Retail sales of cannabis to the public will be allowed beginning in the spring of 2022.
While legal recreational marijuana sales are still more than a year away, Silberman believes it’s important for the town to field a cannabis referendum sooner, rather than later. A positive vote on the question would give local planners ample time to adjust zoning, and prospective retailers additional time to evaluate Middlebury as a place to do business. Cannabis dispensaries must meet a lot of state and federal standards relating to security and quality of the product, to mention a few.
One of the testier areas of political compromise between the Vermont House, Senate and Scott on the cannabis law was that ultimately, municipalities only have the authority to say “no” to retail stores, according to Silberman, who spent a lot of time in Montpelier monitoring the legislation. That said, municipalities would still be able to regulate cannabis retail shops through local zoning, just as they do with other forms of businesses.
Silberman said zoning scrutiny of cannabis retailers is entirely appropriate.
“I would say the middle of Buttolph Acres is a terrible place to put a cannabis retail store,” he said. “But I would say the core of downtown is exactly where we want a cannabis retail store to be, because they draw foot traffic. They will help revitalize the downtown retail core.
Silberman believes those coming downtown to purchase cannabis would also be interested in other purchases, including jewelry, clothing and books. And unlike other retailers, cannabis vendors won’t have online competition, he said.
“Our downtowns are dying across the state because of online shopping,” he said. “If we can’t find a way to compete with online shopping, we won’t have viable downtowns anywhere.”
But the first step for Middlebury, Silberman said, is “saying, ‘Yes, let’s have cannabis retail stores in appropriate places,’ and then we can engage in the conversation of where those appropriate places are.”

WILLISTON EXAMPLE
Silberman noted Williston officials are currently dealing with the prospect of cannabis retailers within that town’s borders. The Williston Observer reported last month that the community’s planning director, Matt Boulanger, had advised the selectboard to steer cannabis stores into the town’s retail core, instead of in the industrial zone, to which the town had previously restricted medical marijuana dispensaries.
Under current Williston zoning, retail cannabis would be allowed anywhere the retailing of any product is permitted, including in the industrial zone on the west side of town, in the village and in the Taft Corners area, the Observer reported.
Middlebury three years ago OK’d a medical marijuana dispensary off Route 7 South.
That dispensary has functioned without a lot of fanfare thus far.
“I think the experience from that is (initial) fears, while legitimately felt by people at the time, haven’t borne out,” Silberman said.
Middlebury Director of Planning and Zoning Jennifer Murray said the planning commission will study the new cannabis retail law within the context of zoning, but the issue isn’t yet on the panel’s radar. In the meantime, retail sales of recreational marijuana aren’t featured in the zoning ordinance’s table of allowable uses, which means such an activity isn’t permitted, for now.
Murray noted the Middlebury Development Review Board authorized the Route 7 medical marijuana dispensary back in 2017 after concluding the proposed use wasn’t different from a pharmacy. She doubts officials will reach that same conclusion for the retail of recreational marijuana.
Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter said this about Silberman’s request: “The board will have this on our agenda for Nov. 17, and we will deliberate on it. We’ll see if the board has a position.”
Carpenter added he thinks it’s “ironic that the high bailiff is the one pushing (the issue)… It feels like a conflict of duties, to me.”
Silberman replied simply, “I disagree.”
He added marijuana is already being sold — in the shadows — throughout Addison County.
“It’s time for us to take cannabis sales out of the high school parking lots and into a store where the seller checks ID, provides a label that says what’s in the product, and where the product undergoes testing so consumers aren’t getting molds or heavy metals, or pesticides,” Silberman said. “It’s time, and I don’t think it’s controversial anymore.”
The sale of recreational marijuana has now been authorized in 11 states. More than 32 states have authorized medical cannabis dispensaries.
Under Vermont’s new cannabis law, products are subject to a 14% excise tax, as well as to Middlebury’s 1% local option tax.
Silberman discussed his proposed cannabis referendum with several people as they headed to and from the polls on Nov. 3. He said he found most folks receptive.
“Even folks who aren’t pro-cannabis said something like, ‘There’s no harm in having a vote; we should have the ability to say yes or no,’” Silberman said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com

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