Photo: (Left) Warrant Committee Chair Roy Epstein and Town Counsel George Hall
April 20 – better known as 4/20 – is, in short, a holiday celebrating marijuana where people gather to consume cannabis and get high.
(Why 4/20 – pronounced four-twenty – ? Blame it on California.)
And in Belmont, 5/2 (May 2) will be marijuana day at the 2018 annual Town Meeting as next Wednesday weed will likely dominate the night’s debate as Town Meeting Members will be asked to decide whether to move forward on a citizens’ petition allowing Belmont to “opt-out” of allowing the retail sale of pot in the “Town of Homes.”
And if the discussion at Monday’s annual Town Meeting warrant preview co-sponsored by the Belmont League of Women Voters and Warrant Committee is any indication, marijuana will take center stage when the Special Town Meeting is called on Wednesday.
In 2016, Bay State voters approved a ballot measure that legalized recreational cannabis and its sale by retail operators. While Belmont followed the state by endorsing the question by a 53-47 percent margin, a group of residents – many affiliated with the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – has sought to remove Belmont from authorizing the sale of pot and cannabis-related “eatables.” Under the current state law, Belmont can approve a single state retail license under a formula that takes into account the number of retail liquor licenses in town.
The pro-opt out group contends a vote to legalize pot statewide does not mean the voters wish to have a marijuana store in the community. Others, including two current members of the Board of Selectmen, believe the majority of Belmont voters in November 2016 represent the “will of the people” on all aspects of the new law, according to Selectman Mark Paolillo.
From what the questioners asked to Warrant Committee Chair Roy Epstein who hosted the meeting and from Town Counsel George Hall, it appears members and residents wanted some clarity on what Wednesday’s vote by Town Meeting will begin or end in terms on Belmont’s pot future.
Hall explained that if the article to approve an opt-out provision passes on a majority vote – 50 percent of voters plus one extra vote – a general election will need to be called sometime in the summer by the Board of Selectmen (the only group allowed to request an election) to ask for town-wide approval.
“It needs to be approved twice. Both need to happen,” said Hall.
But Hall pointed out that approval of the opt-out clause at Town Meeting is a “recommendation” to the Selectmen to ask for a town-wide vote; it does not compel the Board to call for one. And Adam Dash, the selectmen’s chair, reiterated the board’s majority opinion that it would look unfavorably at such an election.
Undeterred by the board’s reluctance to the article, Pam Eagar, who presented the opt-0ut citizens’ petition to the town clerk, showed her group’s potential strategy on bypassing the selectmen when he quired Hall on a possible public referendum on the measure.
Under Belmont bylaws, a referendum – a direct vote in which all voters are invited to vote on a particular proposal to adopt a new bylaw – is allowed, although Hall said it would be a bit “strange” for proponents of the measure to overturn an article accepted by Town Meeting using the referendum process.
But all the political wrangling on opting in or out will be mute if the article doesn’t pass muster on May 2. And if history is any measure, the supporters of the measure could find themselves fighting an uphill battle due to the time-honored practice of placing amendments to an article.
Amendments are just that, addition or substitution to an article’s language used to clarify a measure or to correct misprints or errors. As of this week, there are six separate amendments to the marijuana proposal.
But as seen in past Town Meetings, the greater the number of amendments attached to the articles, the more likely members will determine the original to be “unwinding” and “complicated,” as one member of Monday’s meeting said.
Pot wasn’t the only subject discussed as residents raised questions on amendments regarding changing the number of Selectmen from three to five members and zoning issues related to the General Residence districts.