Photo: Selectmen Mark Paolillo, Chair Jim Williams and Adam Dash with “brownies” before their discussion on pot regulations.
The representatives of the Belmont Board of Health and the town’s Health Department were bearing gifts as they came to speak before the Belmont Board of Selectmen on the future of marijuana retail sales in town.
Uh oh! Was the Board of Health tipping its hand on what position it would take on the future of pot stores in the “Town of Homes?” Or were the members being “set up” like a scene out of a Cheech and Chong film with Belmont Police Chief McLaughlin and the drug squad ready to pounce on the unsuspected consumers of “edibles.”
“Watch out. It could be ‘Mary’ ‘Wona’!” warned Selectmen Chair Jim Williams.
But it turned out that Board of Health member Dr. David Alper was only sweetening the night with actual brownies (and latkas from resident Bonnie Friedman) as he came to advise the selectmen on Monday, Dec. 18 and the Planning Board the next night, Tuesday, Dec. 19 that “they need to get going” to decide whether the town would join the majority of communities allowing the establishment of stores for the “adult” sale of marijuana which will begin statewide on June 1 .
The selectmen declared Monday it would decide whether to opt in or out of the state law allowing the retail sale of pot and associated marijuana-infused food and candies at its scheduled Monday, Jan. 8 meeting at Town Hall.
The state is moving quickly on creating licensing regulations with the Cannabis Control Commission this week presenting to the Secretary of State its outline for the issuance of licenses. The state will hold a public meeting on Feb. 5 before the law goes into effect on April 1 with the first applications going to the 18 medical marijuana dispensaries currently operating. All new weed retailers can open their doors on June 1.
If the board decides to follow the lead of Winchester and a few towns in the Cape that have opted out, Belmont will need to call a town-wide election to support the board’s decision. The special election is required because the town’s voters passed what was called Question 4 in November 2016, 52.5 percent to 46.5 percent (7,585 to 6,868 votes), a slightly lower margin than the state overall, which was 53.6 percent yes vs. 46.3 percent no.
If the voters approve the board’s opt-out declaration, the selectmen would subsequently need to call a special town meeting before April 1 to enact a bylaw codifying the decision.
While the selectmen could simply wait until the town’s scheduled election on April 4 and then the first night of the annual Town Meeting on April 30 rather than call a special election and town meeting with its additional cost of approximately $15,000, Alper noted that marijuana entrepreneurs are expected to target “well-to-do communities” for their retail operations – which early estimates will generate $1 to $3 million in revenue annually – as they seek “upscale cannabis consumers.”
“I am less optimistic that we will be ignored,” said Alper. “Those four days allows someone to come in and ask the CCC for a license which will be granted because we didn’t have a bylaw or vote stopping it.”
By opting out, the town would also forego revenue from a three percent tax through a user agreement with retailers which is on top of the state’s three percent cut. Alper said the money – which modestly could be north of $30,000 annually – must be earmarked towards anti-drug education and prevention, which could include providing grant money to the district schools to conduct annual health surveys, establishing pilot programs to fight opioid addition and funding of additional shifts for police officers in drug prevention operations.
If the board decides to allow stores to open, the selectmen can also decide whether to establish a “cap” on the total number of establishments in Belmont. The minimum number of stores is determined by taking 20 percent of the number of full-liquor retail operations in town, which will allow Belmont to have only one store. While the town must allow one to open although it does control the “time, place and manner” of the store through the Planning Board.
But Alper advised the Planning Board that it should not attempt to “hide” the store(s) in some out-of-the-way location such as behind the new electrical substation off of Brighton Street.
“We want this to be a success,” he said, noting it will be easier to monitor and control.
Selectman Adam Dash said a dispensary near his law practice in Somerville is “very professional looking. They don’t have Bob Marley posters in the window. We can regulate it so it looks like a professional place.”
Alper said this will not be like any other commercial operation in another way: it is a cash-only business. While the state has approved the sale of pot, the federal government continues to see weed as illegal and President Trump’s US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vowed to step up federal enforcement against pot.
The result is banks and other institutions will not accept checks, electronic payments or credit card transactions from these retail operations. Subsequently, the buying and selling of pot is via cash, which also includes how they pay store employees and suppliers. (Although one solution is to use Bitcoin or another non-traditional cryptocurrency.)
“They will pay their taxes and light bill in cash,” said Alper.
And the business ain’t low-end: high-grade pot sold in these establishments will cost between $250 to $400 an ounce, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in cash exchanging hands each day.
“And they’ll need an IRS agent in each store because it’s all cash,” said Alper.
Alper said while the town can limit the number of retail operations, due to the “liberal drafting of the regulations” by the CCC, the Board of Health will have the right to issue permits to a business for the therapeutic or “casual use” of marijuana, pointing to yoga instructors, massage and physical therapists who could seek a waiver.
“We could also see one-day licenses like we have for alcohol use,” said Alper.
Alper said the Board of Health is ready to create these regulations – it does not require Town Meeting or selectmen authorization, just an open public meeting before issuing the new rules – “so we are waiting what direction you want to take.”
“It all leads back to you people,” said Alper.