GREAT BARRINGTON — If anything can churn up confusion and philosophical debate at Town Hall, it's how to regulate recreational marijuana sales in town before the state has locked down its own rules.
The town Planning Board was dipped into murky waters last week, trying to nail down something to bring to voters at the annual town meeting in May, but still unsure of what overarching policies the state has in store when its newly formed Cannabis Control Commission releases its regulations in March. Retail sales applications will be accepted beginning April 1; shops could be open by July 1.
"We wanted to get something in the pipeline," said board Chairwoman Brandee Nelson.
In the end, the board decided to take the matter to the town Select Board for input, but will continue to work on zoning at its next meeting. The board indicatedthat sales will likely be allowed in all areas of town zoned for business and industry.
The state's voters in 2016 said marijuana should be legalized. In Great Barrington, 64 percent of voters also said yes for adult sales and use. Now, town officials have to come up with their own rules for selling it.
But it's not easy without knowing what the state will do first.
"After a year or so, we may be modifying this," Nelson said. "But we want to get something simple and straightforward [on the warrant] so town meeting will vote on it. It's not an ideal process, but it's the one the state has forced us into with their timing."
The board can start making a bylaw now, or do nothing and let state regulations take hold, said board member Malcolm Fick. But doing nothing about related zoning and other issues might hinder or help retail establishments in ways the board, residents and entrepreneurs might not like.
The board used the town's medical marijuana dispensary bylaw as a guide after Fick tweaked it toward retail use.
"If we don't do anything," Fick said, "what's likely going to happen is, when the regulations come out, they might mirror medical marijuana regulations. We should take action that would make it more reasonable for a retail marijuana establishment in town."
He noted that after the state legalized medical marijuana in 2012, the board had, in the town bylaw, reduced the state-imposed 500-foot distance between dispensaries and schools and day care centers, "where minors congregate," to 200 feet. Fick said the state would likely want the 500-foot distance for retail sales.
If the board hadn't reduced it, there wasn't a single place in town where a dispensary could go without breaking the law, Fick said. It was something Town Planner Christopher Rembold had analyzed, he added.
Theory Wellness, the town's first medical marijuana dispensary — the first in Berkshire County — is now open on Stockbridge Road.
The retail location issue is mostly about protecting young people, since some widely cited studies show that regular recreational marijuana can have effects on brains that are not fully developed.
But board members had to look up the definition of a "minor," which is a person younger than 18, it so happens. And where it is that these minors actually congregate is unpredictable, board members agreed.
Fick said he was making a "best guess" that matching retail regulations to medical dispensary regulations was likely the best way to not get tripped up by the state.
Board member Jonathan Hankin pushed to use less-complicated language about retail locations, like that in the state's alcoholic beverage sales law, which says a package store can be closer than 500 feet from schools and churches as long as it won't harm "the educational or spiritual activities" of either.
"A marijuana retail shop is not a whole lot different than a liquor store," Hankin said.
But Nelson reminded him who was in charge.
"The state isn't approaching this like alcohol," she said.
In this modern world, certain questions won't die, and where it is that minors congregate is one.
"Do kids really congregate at schools and churches now?" asked member Jeremy Higa.
"What's here is crazy, nonsensical and ridiculous," member Jack Musgrove said about the state's package store requirements.
"There's a [school] bus stop outside Rite Aid where they sell OxyContin," Hankin said, with a grin at what he sees as a regulatory paradox.
Soon, another archaic concept was hauled out and squashed: The board agreed that Sunday retail sales would be just fine.
And town resident Holly Hamer, sitting in the audience, said that sign regulations might release the board from this maze.
"The distance from kids is not really the issue," she said, and the board appeared to agree.
Heather Bellow can be reached at email@example.com, @BE_hbellow on Twitter, and 413-329-6871.