Our Opinion: Addressing reality of marijuana laws

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Medical marijuana facilities are a reality in Massachusetts and at some point in the near future recreational marijuana facilities will be as well. Most Berkshire residents support both according to referendum votes, but that support declines when specific proposals come forward to establish facilities in specific towns. Hinsdale may break that pattern.

Last October, Hinsdale's Select Board voted in support of Ipswich Pharmaceuticals' development of a medical marijuana facility in town, and in May, the board approved Ipswich's plan to cultivate marijuana for recreational use on the site (Eagle, June 12). The firm wants to purchase a 13-acre parcel on Bullard's Crossing Road, and the town, which is shedding its image for dysfunctional government, is negotiating a host agreement enabling Hinsdale to receive some percentage of the facility's sales. At this point, Ipwich is only committed to cultivating medical marijuana but is keeping its options open.

Ipswich had tried to open a medical marijuana facility in Becket, but after being rejected three times by the Becket Select Board, the company shifted its focus 10 miles away to Hinsdale. There appeared to be strong support for the facility among those who attended a March Select Board meeting in which the Becket board again voted 2-1 against the proposal (Eagle, April 1). The assertion by one resident at the meeting that "This is the biggest drug deal I've ever seen" was an unfair slur on a company that has acted responsibly and made it clear that there will be ample security on its site, as there is at similar sites. "I don't understand what happened!" shouted a Becket attendee after the Select Board squashed the plan and the crowd began leaving.

In 2012, 76 percent of Becket residents voted in favor of the statewide ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana. Pittsfield; Lenox and Lee also backed medical marijuana at the ballot box but residents and town officials have expressed varying degrees of opposition to actually placing facilities within their borders. Hinsdale, whose voters supported both the 2012 medical marijuana initiative and the 2016 ballot question legalizing recreational marijuana, appears willing to back the theoretical with the tangible.

At the most recent Select Board meeting in Becket, some residents expressed concern that the town's drug problem would be aggravated by the presence of a facility cultivating medical marijuana. Becket, like perhaps every Berkshire community, confronts an opioid addiction problem that has reached epidemic levels across the state. Concerns that marijuana use leads to stronger drug use are essentially theoretical. However, medical marijuana is used to treat people suffering from cancer, seizures, chronic pain, muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis and other ailments, and is not a ruse employed to sell recreational marijuana to those who soon will be able to buy it legally.

Meanwhile on Beacon Hill, the House is expected Thursday to hear for the first time from the committee charged with drawing up a bill on recreational marijuana. Lawmakers have indicated that a higher tax will be placed on sales than were proposed by the ballot initiative. A Senate report calls for an excise tax between 5 percent and 15 percent, collected from marijuana growers, a marijuana-specific sales tax of 10 percent to 20 percent, and a "local option" tax of up to 5 percent. Tax revenue, which the state needs as well as local communities, could allay the concerns of many municipalities about having recreational marijuana facilities within their borders. It is expected that the House will offer more detailed rules governing so-called "pot shops."

The recreational law approved by voters called for marijuana sales to be overseen by the office of state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, but there is strong sentiment among lawmakers to provide that oversight to the Legislature. In considering an age limit for the smoking of recreational marijuana, there has been sentiment expressed to use the law to raise the smoking age in the state to 25 for reasons of health. The House committee bill will likely provide an indication of how the dialogue on recreational marijuana will unfold going forward.

The essentially half-baked 2016 ballot question emerged because the Legislature and governor were behind the voters on the issue of recreational marijuana and never caught up with a bill of their own. The Legislature is now playing catch-up ball on what is becoming reality. Many Berkshire towns are resisting even that process, while Hinsdale is not only adjusting to the reality of recreational marijuana it is preparing to profit from it.


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