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Four towns say ‘yes’ to retail cannabis

MIDDLEBURY — Residents in four local towns on Tuesday voted in favor of sending a message to entrepreneurs that their municipalities will consider applications for cannabis retail stores in the future.
Vermont’s Act 164, which legalized recreational marijuana, requires a municipality to “opt in” before a retailer selling marijuana can open in that community. That can only be done via a Yes/No vote of town residents. More than a dozen Vermont municipalities held an “opt-in” vote on Town Meeting Day. Locally, Middlebury (by a vote of 951-546 ),Vergennes (387-185), Salisbury (118-105) and Brandon (657-555) passed cannabis retail votes.
If a community “opts-in” and subsequently receives one or more store applications, the earliest an enterprise could open is next year — 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 spearheaded the effort to get the cannabis referendum on Middlebury’s Town Meeting Day ballot. He had been prepared to file a petition to force the cannabis vote, but the Middlebury selectboard agreed to place it on the ballot in order to relieve Silberman of having to collect signatures during a pandemic, and to better to learn the will of the people before having to potentially adjust local zoning ordinances and draft new rules related to recreational marijuana sales.
Silberman was very pleased with the vote results.
“My fellow Middlebury residents spoke loud and clear at the polls today, welcoming the downtown economic development boost and public safety benefits that regulated cannabis retailers will bring to our town,” he said through a written statement released Tuesday evening. “Townspeople understand that cannabis is already being sold illegally in Middlebury today, and voiced their clear preference that those sales be brought out of the shadows and conducted in a manner that draws both locals and tourists back to Main Street, where these consumers will patronize our other downtown stores, restaurants, and arts venues. I look forward to working with town officials to ensure that the voters’ will is respected in the town’s zoning decisions going forward.”
The Vermont Cannabis Control Board is working on statewide regulations for cannabis retail. 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 could 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 store’s license be denied, revoked or suspended. This is how the selectboard, functioning as the local liquor control commission, is currently able to regulate alcohol licenses.
Jennifer Murray, Middlebury’s director of planning & zoning, had expressed reservations about the cannabis referendum leading up to March 2. She has noted Middlebury won’t be able to cap the number of cannabis retailers in town.
Middlebury could hold an “opt-out” vote at a later date, though all existing cannabis stores would be grandfathered.
Where does Middlebury go from here? According to Murray:
“The next step will be for the selectboard to decide whether to form a local cannabis control commission and begin a process for creating local bylaws for that commission to administer related to this new type of business,” she said Wednesday morning. “We’ll also be waiting to see how the state cannabis control board will regulate these businesses. We anticipate those policy recommendations to start coming from the state in June. After that, zoning will have a fairly small role in proposing certain zoning districts where these uses might be allowed.”
Silberman has 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 last month 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.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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