Retail pot advocates, opponents share views
I am really sensitive to the businesses and wanting to have the downtown flourish, but when it comes to the health of even one developing brain, I’m not willing to sacrifice that.
— Dr. Jody Brakeley
MIDDLEBURY — Advocates and opponents of a proposal for Middlebury to entertain cannabis stores presented their respective cases during a Zoom informational meeting on Tuesday. The town selectboard hosted the informational meeting to help the public understand the subject prior to the upcoming March 2 vote on the subject.
Vermont’s Act 164, which legalized recreational marijuana, requires a municipality to “opt in” before a cannabis retailer can open in that community. That can only be done via a Yes/No vote of town residents. Middlebury is one of more than a dozen Vermont municipalities that will be fielding the “opt-in” vote. Locally, Vergennes, Salisbury and Brandon are also entertaining cannabis retail votes on Town Meeting Day.
If a community “opts-in” and subsequently receives one or more store applications, the earliest an enterprise could open is October of 2022 — unless Middlebury’s current medical cannabis outlet seeks to acquire a special (integrated) license to also sell recreational marijuana, according to Dave Silberman, a longtime advocate for cannabis legalization who currently serves as Addison County high bailiff.
Silberman at Tuesday’s meeting argued cannabis stores could become part of the town’s economic resurgence. He said such stores would be subject to excise, sales and local option taxes, and would attract more shoppers who in turn might frequent other local retailers and restaurants. He added cannabis stores have limited competition because the substance can’t be ordered online.
“It’s a way to bring vitality to the downtown,” he said. “A majority of cannabis stores want to make a safe, welcoming place to shop.”
Silberman sought to tamp down concerns that a cannabis store might invite crime, send the wrong message to minors, or promote public smoking. He made a presentation suggesting that cannabis stores are heavily regulated and thus possess some of the most sophisticated security and lighting systems in the retail industry. He noted there are already public ordinances that prohibit smoking in public places.
A “no” vote on March 2 would bar cannabis retailers from opening in town, unless the town were to opt-in at a later date. Silberman urged the town not to wait.
“As people are looking to establish these businesses, they’re going to do it in towns that welcome them and where it’s legal for them to do so,” he said. “If Middlebury doesn’t opt-in now, people looking to get into this business will … go someplace else. We may lose the opportunity to welcome the best operators to Middlebury.”
Some town officials and citizens expressed reservations about welcoming cannabis retails — at least at this time.
“I’m curious if the town has to take a vote right now,” resident Anne Taylor asked. “It seems as though citizens would be better equipped to make a determination of what they want if these zoning and design questions are addressed ahead of time.”
Dr. Jody Brakeley echoed that sentiment, while warning the message that retail cannabis could send to youths.
“The message to a lot of children with developing brains in the 12- to 16-year-old range — they’ll think if we have retail stores, the adults have decided it’s safe,” she said. “I am really sensitive to the businesses and wanting to have the downtown flourish, but when it comes to the health of even one developing brain, I’m not willing to sacrifice that.”
Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay explained the opt-in question was triggered by a citizens’ petition (spearheaded by Silberman), and the selectboard agreed to place it on the ballot instead of requiring him to gather the requisite signatures during a pandemic.
Middlebury selectboard chair Brian Carpenter said he and his colleagues felt it would be better to learn the will of the people before having to potentially adjust its zoning ordinances and design rules to countenance cannabis retail.
“The board has felt that we have a lot of projects on our plate, and this is a significant undertaking to review all the ordinances, and before we make this a large project for (town Planning & Zoning Director Jennifer Murray) we’d like to know what the voters think, if they want us to even pursue this,” Carpenter said.
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley noted the Vermont Cannabis Control Board is currently working on statewide regulations for marijuana retail. He and Murray said towns will be able to regulate cannabis businesses — retailers, manufacturers, cultivators, testing labs or wholesalers — through local sign, zoning and/or nuisance ordinances. The town can also set up a local Cannabis Control Commission that can ensure stores are adhering to rules. If they don’t, the commission could recommend that the stores license be denied, revoked or suspended. This is how the selectboard, functioning as the local liquor control commission, is able to regulate alcohol licenses.
Murray was candid in her reservations about an opt-in for cannabis retail.
“We’d have to choose zoning districts that we wanted to allow this use in,” she said. “But then within said zoning district, it’s unclear to me if we’d be able to say, ‘It’s OK to have something in Frog Hollow Alley, but we don’t want something on Main Street.’ I don’t think we can really parse out within a zoning district.”
Several years ago Middlebury decided to prohibit more car dealerships after it had accrued three, according to Murray. The town wouldn’t be able to put such a cap on cannabis stores, she believes.
“If we opt-in with this vote, the municipality will no longer have that kind of control over this use,” she said. “So it’s an opt-in to lose municipal control, in a way.”
Murray acknowledged Middlebury could hold an “opt-out” vote at a later date, though all existing cannabis stores would be grandfathered.
Silberman encouraged town officials to “have a thorough review … with the maps, as to where (cannabis) is appropriate and where it’s not.
“That’s probably where the selectboard might want to start: ‘Do we need to create a new type of activity — a subset of retail or different than retail — and specify?’” he added.
Resident Joanna Colwell urged her fellow residents to vote “yes” on March 2.
“This is an opportunity to not fight it tooth and nail, but to benefit from it,” Colwell said. “Let’s try to not be afraid.”
Advocates for the opt-in side have posted plenty of literature — including Silberman’s presentation — on their website, middyes.com.
The most recent cannabis-related material generated by the town can be found at tinyurl.com/yyucybvp.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
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