Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Commission leader well-suited to lead way to retail marijuana

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LENOX — Advocates and voters who approved legalizing recreational retail marijuana shops have nothing to fear from the five-member Cannabis Control Commission, even though four of them, including the chairman, voted against last November's ballot question which gained a nearly 54 percent "yes" margin statewide and 59 percent in the Berkshires.

It turns out that the chairman, Steven Hoffman, 64, is an occasional user who told the Boston Globe he believes marijuana isn't harmful, that the country's prohibitionist drug policies have failed, and that he's committed to creating a thriving recreational market in Massachusetts.

The former business executive and aide to Mitt Romney at Bain & Co. in Boston acknowledged he got high during a visit to Colorado last year, where pot is legal. "My wife and I went to a store, bought a T-shirt, bought a joint, smoked it and watched the July 4 fireworks," he said.

Entrepreneurs trying to get in on the ground floor of a multi billion-dollar statewide business welcomed Hoffman's remarks.

Valerio Romano, the attorney who appeared at meetings in Lenox on behalf of startup company Crane Healthcare that was exploring a site in town, described Hoffman as "not one of these `Reefer Madness' people," referring to the 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film. "He seems like a far more progressive, thoughtful person — like somebody I could work with."

It's still not clear whether the underfunded Cannabis Control Commission will be able to come up with statewide regulations in time for recreational sales to begin next July. However, Hoffman addressed voters who supported last November's Question 4 referendum, declaring: "We heard you, and we're going to implement the law that you voted for. We're going to get it done."

Why did he vote "no" on the ballot question? At a news conference last Wednesday, he said he thought the timeline for opening pot shops was too aggressive, favoring instead "a slower and more studious approach."

At an informative discussion on Aug. 31 organized by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and held before a near-capacity crowd of area officials and residents at Lenox Town Hall, municipal law specialist Ray Miyares pointed out that since every Berkshire County community voted in favor of Question 4, the opportunities for restricting or banning pot shops will be difficult.

To set limits or prohibitions, voters in communities that approved the ballot question — including all in Berkshire County — would have to approve restrictions by a two-thirds supermajority at a town meeting (or by the City Council in the case of Pittsfield or North Adams), followed by a simple majority vote on election day next November.

So far, 37 communities statewide have imposed a zoning moratorium on any recreational marijuana establishments — including Lee (until Sept. 1, 2018), Lenox (until Dec. 31, 2018) and Egremont (through January 2019).

Miyares, while advocating delays until final state regulations are issued (the current deadline is next March 15), pointed out that even towns that approved the ballot question by a slim majority are subject to the same statewide law.

In one of his typically wry, humorous asides, Miyares acknowledged the "not in my backyard" syndrome when he quipped that even if a town voted yes, "it should not be interpreted to mean they were voting to have retail facilities in their own town."

The bottom line: It's fine to set limits on hours and impose other reasonable restrictions, as communities do for package stores. But it subverts the democratic principles of our republic to deny the majority will of the voters, and a do-over — even with the two-thirds requirement — seems questionable, at best. No matter how one feels about pot shops, the outcome of an election must be respected, not second-guessed.

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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