Days after Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a new recreational marijuana bill into law, several officials at last week’s Easthampton, Massachusetts Planning Board meeting said they would “support a strong, thriving legal cannabis trade there,” making it the next potential pot tourist town.
Planning Board chairman Jesse Belcher-Timme opened the floor to over an hour of public discussion. The meeting addressed a myriad of concerns expressed by both sides of the issue.
“There was some concern expressed about this becoming a marijuana destination city,” said board member Christopher Cockshaw. “I don’t think that’s a bad idea. That’s kind of wonderful. I’m OK with that.”
Cockshaw remarked that any concerns about Easthampton losing its “beautiful downtown” due to the presence of cannabis shops are unfounded. He described how marijuana has enhanced his own appreciation of the landscape.
“I know when I smoked, things were a lot more beautiful,” he said. “So, I think it would be wonderful to sit down on that bench after I’ve had a brownie, and look at Mount Tom and see how beautiful, how even more gorgeous it is.”
Some of the topics touched upon included zoning, if Amsterdam-style “cannabis cafes” should be encouraged, should the total number of marijuana shops be limited, and where in the city should grow rooms or retail shops be allowed?
City Councillor Salem Derby spoke at the top of the meeting. Derby, who currently represents Precinct 4 on the City Council and has for the previous four years, said he would challenge any claim that retail marijuana shops would jeopardize Easthampton’s family-friendly status.
“I just want to nip that in the bud,” he said. “That’s insulting to 63 percent of Easthampton who have voted for this. I don’t think 63 percent of the population voted for something that is anti-family. In fact, I would question why that phrase would ever be said in relation to cannabis. When we look at alcohol and tobacco, which are readily available, are they that much more benign than cannabis? I would challenge anybody to tell me how cannabis is more dangerous than alcohol; for example, how much would you have to consume to overdose, when comparing alcohol to cannabis? If you become addicted to cannabis and you stop using it, what are the side effects? Do you go through severe withdrawal, and potentially death, like with alcohol, or severe withdrawal like from nicotine? Is using alcohol anti-family?”
“I think we should weigh these things equally. The only thing that is weighing cannabis down is the stigma from misinformation,” he emphatically continued. He expressed his dislike for marijuana prohibition, saying it has roots in racist rhetoric and racist policies. “That baggage is important to unload,” he said.
He also expressed support for cannabis cafes, saying if a legal place is not provided for people to smoke, vape or consume edibles, then they are likely to do so in public.
Easthampton Healthy Youth Coordinator, Ruth Ever, was one of several to recommend care and caution as the Planning Board proceeds. She said any action to lower the “perception of harm” would likely lead to greater marijuana use among teens. She said communities in Colorado have seen problems arising from legal cannabis, and expressed confidence local officials would not imperil “our family-friendly status we’re so well-known for.”
Citizen Charles Davy fiercely retorted via social media, “What we have seen in Colorado since legalization, was a drop in teen usage. Any argument that is centered around ‘protect the children’ can immediately be tossed in the garbage. Those types of arguments are a last attempt to fear monger people into supporting you.”
His like-minded comrade Albert Schweitzer quipped, “It is already a beer destination. Why not pot?”
Planning Board member James Zarvis, a public health researcher, cited a study which showed cognitive declines in young teenagers who used marijuana. He was in favor of restrictions on retail signage, so as not to entice them.
“It shouldn’t have Cheech and Chong,” he said. “It shouldn’t have a big green pot leaf.”
Zarvis also said he does not support mixing marijuana with alcohol.
“I agree that alcohol and marijuana should not be in the same place,” said Cockshaw. “Speaking as someone who has partaken in both, simultaneously and separately, I don’t think that should happen. It’s dangerous.”
A man using the handle Retired Taxpayer, genuinely asked, “How do you plan on keeping pot smokers under the influence from driving, and killing or maiming citizens?”
To which Newowner1 sarcastically replied, “They don’t drive, they have their pizza delivered.”
“Besides, pot does not even come close to effects of alchohol [sic],” he continued.
Zarvis’ concerns were supported by Chuck McCullagh Jr., chief financial officer of the Williston Northampton School, who urged “balance, caution and mindfulness” in crafting marijuana zoning, so as to protect impressionable high school students.
One man said he wants to open a restaurant where cannabis will be used as a food ingredient. Another said Easthampton “has been a pot town since I was a little kid,” and vouched for the integrity of local growers. A third said he supports on-site consumption, but not until an accurate field sobriety test is developed to detect impaired drivers.
“It is not a consequence-free substance,” he said.
Charles Davy once again defended his pro-pot position:“That problem needs to be solved by prohibitionists. They restricted research on cannabis for over a century, and as a result we don’t have a cannabis breathalyzer. Shouldn’t have made cannabis Schedule 1.”
Northampton attorney Dick Evans, chairman of the successful statewide “Yes on 4” campaign, talked about how Easthampton could permit cannabis cafes.
Easthampton correspondent Mary C. Serreze reported that under the new law hammered out by the state legislature, and signed by Gov. Baker on Friday, licenses will be available for cultivation, product manufacturing and retail, as well as for agriculture-based “craft cooperatives.” The state’s Cannabis Control Commission may also issue other types of licenses, as they see fit.
Any local ordinance would be drafted by the Planning Board and sent to the City Council for further discussion. But time is tight, as the state’s Cannabis Control Commission plans to start issuing licenses to entrepreneurs in April.
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