Photo: The Belmont Board of Selectmen: Paolillo (left), Williams and Dash.
Belmont is open for the recreational sale of marijuana when the Belmont Board of Selectmen rejected a proposal by Chair Jim Williams on Monday, Jan. 8 to hold a town-wide vote in February to ask residents their opinion on the controversial measure.
The 2-1 vote, with selectmen Mark Paolillo and Adam Dash voting no, did not sit well with Williams, who said it was the responsibility of the board to ask residents whether a majority wanted to town to “opt out” of the retail sale of weed in Belmont. While acknowledging that the town voted 52 percent to 48 percent in favor of the state-wide amendment in Nov. 2016 to end the prohibition of marijuana sales in the Bay State, Williams strenuously contended the result was not a green light on sales.
“Forget about Belmont’s representative democracy,” said Williams in an email to the Belmontonian after the board vote.
“[I]t’s actual democracy [that] took it on the chin last night … actually preventing the electorate from deciding whether to allow recreational marijuana retail sales in town or not. Opinion: Truly astonishing,” noted Williams.
In an attempt to revive the issue, Williams said he will schedule a reconsideration vote on the agenda when the selectmen next meet on Jan. 22.
The need for the proposed “opt-out” special election in February is it would allow the town could “get ahead” of the April 1 date when the state’s licencing board begins accepting applications for retailers, according to the Town Counsel George Hall. With Belmont’s Town Election on April 3, retail applicants would have a small but critical three-day “window” to apply, effectively grandfathering their application if the town’s voters decided to ban the sale of weed in town.
In the past few months, residents in Lexington and Winchester have voted “no” on sales and have submitted local bylaws to the state Attorney General for a review.
Williams said not placing a question whether to “opt out” on the April 3 annual Town Election “is putting someone [ie retailer and the state] else in charge of the town,” as he advocated for a special election.
“I am not in favor of doing nothing” since the board has “no idea, zero” on the electorate’s support or opposition to pot sales in the Town of Homes.
“We have to respect the will of the people and to do that we have to know what it is,” said Williams.
But for the majority of the Selectmen, the vote and Special Town Meeting to ratify a new bylaw – at a cost of approximately $23,000, according to Town Clerk Ellen Cushman – would be counter to the will of the voters who originally passed the question 14 months ago.
For Paolillo, a special election “would be somewhat decisive” in a town where 70 percent of registered voters – about 14,000 – came to the polls and a majority casting a “yes” vote. He also said the public understood that voting yes “could mean sales in our town.”
“We are representing the will of the people and they have spoken,” said Paolillo to Williams’ earlier statement.
In addition, local pot retailers will come under significant local controls including “the time, place and manner” of store operations and with the ability of the Health Department to mitigate the effects including by raising the age limit on the purchase marijuana and from the Planning Board in which business zone they can set up shop, said Paolillo and Dash.
Events outside of Belmont is also playing a role to limit applicants in Belmont as the federal government issued new guidelines this week which advised US Attorneys they can now enforce national laws that views marijuana as an illegal drug. Selectman Dash said the new harsher view by the feds will likely dampen retailers “jumping in here … with the uncertainty of the federal government.”
In addition, the town would lose out on a three percent cut on sales that would go towards drug prevention and police, and education said Belmont Health Committee member Dr. David Alper. “Three percent is better than nothing,” said Alper.
Dash said while he was leaning towards a special election last month, “the more I thought about it and talked to people … that I’d rather do nothing than opt out but regulated appropriately.”
“There’s going to be marijuana in Belmont whether we like it or not,” said Dash.
After Monday’s vote, Alper said the Health Department, along with the Planning Board, would begin creating comprehensive regulations on marijuana sales, singling out Brookline as a template as it has experience writing regulations with medical marijuana.
While the Health Board can unilaterally create regulations without the approval of Town Meeting, “we will hold public hearings so the public can be heard on this important matter.”