Cannabis Control Commission stresses public safety in preparation for pot's footprint during Lenox meeting

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LENOX — With state-licensed retail shops poised to sell a wide range of marijuana products as soon as July 1, officials are emphasizing to communities the importance of security, safety and a formidable set of regulations and operational requirements.

Members of the state's Cannabis Control Commission and a municipal law expert led an informational session that drew about 80 people to Lenox Town Hall on Tuesday night, stressing "very stringent security requirements." The two-hour meeting, which was set up by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, was designed to help prepare municipalities for legalization of the sale, cultivation and manufacture of marijuana products.

"Marijuana activists say we're treating marijuana like plutonium," said Kay Doyle, a member of the commission. "In fact, a police chief in Western Massachusetts commented that once the marijuana facility got up and running, it would be the most secure building in town; it would be more secure than the police station."

She pointed out that buffer zones prevent adult-use retailers from locating within 500 feet of existing public or private schools through 12th grade. But signs cannot be more restrictive than what's allowed for package stores in a town, she added.

Furthermore, communities cannot prevent marijuana establishments from transporting their products through town, as long as they're in "nondescript" vehicles.

"You're not going to see a van driving through your town that says `weed-mobile,' or anything like that," Doyle said.

"We don't want the marijuana establishment agents getting carjacked because they have valuable payloads or cash in their cars," she stated. "A lot of them are very cash-heavy operations, so we don't want to advertise that there's a van driving through town with thousands of dollars on board because ne'er-do-wells will do bad things, so we want to keep everybody as safe as we can."

Commission member Jennifer Flanagan, who specializes in public health, told the audience of about 80 that she's discouraging people from using the term "recreational" to describe adult use of marijuana.

"We're trying not to affect children and minors on this, and when we talk about recreational things, kids tend to get excited about it," she said.

Flanagan pointed out that since the commission wants to allow businesses to market their products while ensuring children are not attracted to them, there are strict limits on logos and images in their advertising.

"We want to make sure this is a very regulated industry here in Massachusetts," said Flanagan, citing rules appearing on "106 pages of riveting reading." Labels on products will include a health warning that they contain THC — the chemical responsible for most of marijuana's psychological effects on the brain.

Municipal attorney J. Raymond Miyares detailed the many ways towns can control the location, impacts and operations of adult-use retailers through legally binding and enforceable host community agreements with marijuana businesses. A town's Select Board is required to submit a letter of support or of non-opposition to the commission, which is required to obtain a state license.

"At the end of the day, we want to make sure that a community is experiencing a net-positive outcome," he said. Miyares encouraged towns to think about the physical, safety, community and infrastructure impacts of marijuana facilities that should be detailed in host community agreements. Towns can legitimately deny an agreement, but only if negotiations with a potential business operator fail, he noted.

He pointed out that every Berkshire city and town voted "yes" on the 2016 Election Day ballot question on legalizing marijuana. For "yes" towns, unless voters approve a local ballot question imposing a prohibition, marijuana retail businesses cannot be banned outright.

Towns can limit retail marijuana establishments to 20 percent of the number of package stores in the community, Doyle noted. So, for example, a town with five or fewer alcohol retailers could confine adult-use pot shops to one.

Offering a breezy, conversational description of the many hoops that cultivators, manufacturers and retailers must jump through, she also pointed out that "real farmers who felt shut out of the industry" can form a "craft marijuana cooperative" in order to participate in growing and manufacturing.

Citing several western states where "too much marijuana is being grown," Doyle described rules designed to avert a similar problem in Massachusetts through management to avoid over-production.

Retailers can be accessed only by adults 21 or older, she emphasized, and, if in the same facility with a medical marijuana dispensary, by patients with a state-issued registered marijuana dispensary card.

Separate licenses for marijuana research facilities will be issued so the state can be a "leader in research." she added.

Another type of license is available for micro-businesses, "a teeny-tiny marijuana company," as Doyle put it, limited to 5,000 square feet for cultivation, manufacturing and retail sales. Those reduced-fee licenses are available only to state residents in order to "stimulate small-business enterprises," she noted.

Once a license application packet is completed, the Cannabis Control Commission gives towns 60 days to confirm whether or not the proposed business complies with local zoning bylaws or ordinances.

Citing a "hot-button issue," Doyle told the audience that local towns cannot prevent conversion of an existing medical marijuana dispensary to an adult-use sales establishment, either as a replacement or as an add-on retail enterprise.

She also stressed that registered medical marijuana dispensaries are "grandfathered" from zoning bylaws that would prevent them from adding an adult-use shop. In addition, "if you have a fully permitted cultivation facility in a town," she said, "you can't prevent it through zoning from adding adult-use."

Doyle commented that the commission would honor moratoriums as a "planning tool" passed by some towns, but only "as a temporary delay for a reasonable length of time."

"2018 is your year. Let's get it done in 2018," Doyle told the municipal officials in the audience.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.

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