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Massachusetts Towns Reject Cannabis Bans, Bucking Early Trend

November 20, 2017

BOSTON (AP) — A growing number of Massachusetts communities are leaving their borders open to commercial marijuana businesses, bucking a wave of bans and moratoriums that followed voter approval of legal recreational cannabis.

Recent votes in several cities and towns against prohibitions on retail marijuana shops have cheered advocates for the nascent cannabis industry who say it could signal that communities around the state are slowly concluding that potential benefits, including a boost in tax revenues and the driving out of illegal dealers, outweigh the drawbacks of welcoming such businesses to town.

“We got a lot of support from people who don’t use cannabis, but might want to someday,” said Scott Winters, a resident of Amesbury who spearheaded opposition to an anti-cannabis referendum that was defeated by a nearly 2-1 margin Nov. 7. “From users to non-users to just folks who want revenue for the city, we had a lot of support.”

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Town meetings in Dracut, Marshfield and the Cape Cod town of Brewster have also turned aside bans in recent weeks. The votes in Marshfield and Brewster were notable for having occurred in towns where a majority of residents voted against the legalization question on last November’s state ballot.

Democratic Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who strongly opposed legalization, has nonetheless promised the city will accommodate marijuana stores.

Yet there’s still far from broad acceptance around Massachusetts, which along with Maine were the first eastern U.S. states to legalize recreational cannabis. Since January, towns have imposed at least 121 bans or other constraints on marijuana-related businesses, which also include growing and processing facilities and testing labs, according to records of the attorney general’s municipal law unit.

The so-called “not in my backyard” dynamic is not unique to Massachusetts, having played out in states that previously legalized recreational marijuana.

In Colorado, the first state to do so in 2012, more than 60 percent of towns and cities have opted out of hosting retail stores, according to Kevin Bommer, deputy director of the Colorado Municipal League. The additional revenue from marijuana taxes hasn’t necessarily proven a windfall for those with cannabis businesses, he added.

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“I don’t think it is the pot of gold that some folks might think it is, because a lot has to go into administration and enforcement,” he said.

A map of 228 cities drawn by the Municipal Research Services Center in Washington state shows bans or moratoriums in place in 80 communities, though 109 others permit marijuana-related businesses within various zoning restrictions and the rest have taken no action.

Massachusetts lawmakers sweetened the deal for cities and towns earlier this year by raising the maximum local-option marijuana sales tax from 2 percent to 3 percent and allowing municipalities to extract an additional 3 percent of sales through user agreements with retailers. The state’s first cannabis shops are expected to open in mid-2018.

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Regulate Cape Cod, a group that supports retail sales in the popular tourist destination, estimated that a single marijuana store in Brewster would instantly become the town’s second biggest taxpayer, behind only the sprawling Ocean Edge resort.

Winchester, about nine miles north of Boston, decided any potential revenue was outweighed by other fears such as having marijuana-laced candy or other food products circulate through the community, said Michael Bettencourt, chairman of the town’s select board.

“We were mostly concerned with the edibles, those getting into the hands of (children), and not being able to really have a plan of how to manage that,” he said. Winchester voted at town meeting Nov. 9 to ban retail shops, at least temporarily.

Two other Cape Cod towns, Sandwich and Mashpee, also adopted prohibitions recently.

Campaigns against proposed bans in places like Amesbury, a small city along the New Hampshire border, have typically been organized by local grassroots activists such as Winters, and less so by large, national pro-marijuana groups.

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Winters said he has used cannabis off and on for about 30 years, partly to cope with anxiety and stress, and hopes to someday buy it legally in his hometown — provided the quality is right.

“If we’re already used to getting some really killer, cool stuff, we’re not going to waste our time, and our money, on a crap product,” he said.

Proponents of bans and moratoriums are quick to point out that they don’t strip away the rights of adult residents to possess or use recreational marijuana under the new law.

But cannabis industry advocates argue widespread prohibitions will leave large swaths of the state without retail outlets, prompting many residents to continue buying from illicit suppliers nearby.

“Why would you drive two hours, or even one hour, if you can get it in five minutes?” asked Kamani Jefferson, a Cambridge resident who founded the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council.

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