Our Opinion: Williamstown model for marijuana sales

As the July 1 kickoff date for recreational marijuana sales looms ever closer, some municipalities are reacting with fear and loathing — passing local anti-pot moratoriums, burying their heads in the sand and hoping the whole issue will somehow miraculously go up in smoke. Every Berkshire town voted to legalize recreational pot sales, manufacture and use in the 2016 ballot referendum, and now they are required by state law to develop a way to absorb cannabis enterprises.

Choosing to stave off the inevitable because the idea of allowing pot businesses into one's community is so politically fraught is a non-solution to the problem. A better approach would be to follow the model of Williamstown, whose Select Board and town manager confronted the issue coolly and logically as long ago as last May's town meeting. As a result, the town is prepared to welcome a conjoined medical marijuana/recreational pot store the first day sales become legal. (Eagle, March 11)

Williamstown was also blessed with forward-thinking leadership, according to Town Manager Jason Hoch, who shepherded the town's pot policy-making process to its conclusion. "The Planning Board actually set the table for me," Mr. Hoch told The Eagle. "We'd already discussed the zoning at the town meeting. I had a very level-headed Board of Selectmen that said, 'We're going to have a conversation. If it's going to be legal in the state, we ought to plan now, instead of waiting." As a result, there was plenty of time for people to express their concerns and to explain to those worried that marijuana sales were about to become legal that that train had left the station when Bay Staters voted in 2016.

Additionally, The Village Beautiful already had a suitor in Joshua Silver, CEO of Silver Therapeutics, the cannabis business that will be locating in the Colonial Plaza shopping center come July. "We weren't dealing with an abstract, " Mr. Hoch said. "We had a credible applicant we were talking with live at the moment. We had someone coming in who looks and talks like one of us. Wears a suit. Has kids." According to Mr. Hoch, he met with Mr. Silver to provide him guidance as to how best to navigate the political currents and to give him suggestions about what residents felt was important. As a result of all the goodwill engendered, the town was able to impose the maximum in local taxes along with a $5,000 donation from the business to fund a nonprofit organization dedicated to furthering drug education, prevention and treatment. The deal struck between town and business, known officially as a "Host Community Agreement," also specifies the use of local workers wherever possible, as well as ensuring town approval of the business' manager.

Ironically, the presence of Williams College — with a student body comprising over 2,000 young adults — had little effect on the smooth and timely outcome of the negotiations. "Their official stance was to oppose use of marijuana by any of their students, because of the federal funding they receive," Mr. Hoch said.

The town manager also offered some useful advice to localities that are still struggling to accommodate the new industry within their borders. "If we accept that [cannabis] has become legal in the state, we need to take a deep breath and think through how it will fit best in our community. Make sure you get an applicant with whom you share values. If it's going to happen, get past the fear of the unknown."

It could be just that simple.


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