Wareham to hold Special Town Meeting ahead of state marijuana deadline

Jan 31, 2018

Some of the questions surrounding the legal sale of recreational marijuana in town will be put to rest before an April 1 state deadline, as Selectmen authorized a Special Town Meeting designed to limit the number and locations of pot shops locally.

In November 2016, a state ballot question passed that paved the way for recreational sales of marijuana in Massachusetts. The state's Cannabis Control Commission is drafting a framework for the oversight of retail marijuana shops. Those shops are due to open in July, and it is currently legal to possess and grow marijuana for personal use.

On Tuesday, Selectmen unanimously approved holding a Special Town Meeting on March 12 at 7 p.m. in Wareham High School. All registered voters may attend and participate.

At Town Meeting last year, voters approved a moratorium on retail marijuana shops to allow officials time to draft rules governing sales. That moratorium expires June 30.

April 1 marks the first day the Cannabis Control Commission must start accepting applications from potential marijuana retailers, cultivators and product manufacturers. However, Selectman Alan Slavin said it’s unclear if licenses approved before the moratorium ends would be subject to regulations originally scheduled for a vote at the April 23 Town Meeting.

In order to avoid lawsuits, either against the town from recreational proponents or residents, Slavin said the Special Town Meeting will put rules in place ahead of time.

“We’re being extremely proactive,” said Slavin. “We don’t want to be in a situation where we might face lawsuits that we’re not going to win at the end of the day.”

With a Special Town Meeting before April 1, Slavin said: “We’re fully protected. No matter what happens, we’re all set.”

Slavin said other cities and towns might not be aware of the potential for conflict after a recent Massachusetts Municipal Association meeting. A workshop there revealed that if bylaws are not in place before local moratoriums are lifted, then cities and towns may lose their chance to pass local regulations.

Chair Peter Teitelbaum highlighted the problem, saying, “There would be a three-week gap and we could be absolutely overrun with applicants. We can’t take that risk.”

Already the town has seen interest from three potential recreational marijuana developers. All three have approached the Planning Department, said Slavin.

Director of Planning & Community Development Kenneth Buckland confirmed that, saying one potential applicant inquired about a new medical marijuana operation and another asked about a retail project with on-site growing and processing facilities. The third group included the developers of a long-gestating medical marijuana facility near Tobey Hospital to discuss their building permit.

No official paperwork has been filed yet.

By holding a Special Town Meeting, Slavin said voters will decide whether or not they want to limit the number and location of retail marijuana shops. Under the draft bylaw, the number of recreational marijuana shops would be limited to two, tied to the number of liquor stores in town. The state recommends limiting pot shops to less than 20 percent of the number of package stores. In Wareham, there are 13 package stores.

“Without these rules, it’s possible for there to be 10, 12 or more stores in town, located just about anywhere they want,” said Slavin.

There are some state rules, such as prohibiting stores from opening up within 500 feet of a school or anywhere children normally gather. There will be four items on the Special Town Meeting agenda. Three will be zoning bylaws and one will be a bylaw allowing the Town of Wareham to collect a 3 percent excise tax from sales.

Wareham’s rules, if adopted, would limit the number of retail marijuana licenses issued locally to two and require those stores to open in the general commercial, strip commercial and institutional districts. The general commercial district stretches on both sides of Route 28 from the I-195 on-ramp to the area of Robertson’s Auto Salvage.

The strip commercial district is located just past Robertson’s Auto Salvage on Route 25 and extends to the Bourne town line. The institutional district is located near Tobey Hospital.

Looking ahead, the Cannabis Control Commission is slated to issue the first licenses starting June 1 if there are no delays to the current timeline. The first retail stores are expected to open starting July 1.

So far, state plans are still moving ahead despite uncertainty from federal officials. The Trump administration recently rescinded Obama-era policy that curtailed federal enforcement in states where marijuana is legal.

The U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, said that his office could not provide assurance that marijuana activities at the state level will be immune from federal prosecution.