GREAT BARRINGTON — In an effort to level the mind-altering playing field of two substances, town officials at a public forum about limits to retail marijuana said Wednesday they would recommend that voters curb the number of pot shops in town to seven, the same number as the town's liquor licenses.
In a 4-0 vote, the Select Board decided to make the recommendation to annual town meeting. Vice Chairman Ed Abrahams was not present for the vote.
Board member Kate Burke said it was important to at least equalize the two in an effort to "de-stigmatize" marijuana, and to prevent licenses from becoming hot, expensive commodities the way liquor licenses are.
But, the board held off on a vote about the number of retailers in the downtown, since a clear demarcation of where downtown begins and ends hasn't yet been established.
And, there are many divergent opinions to go around, as the forum revealed.
Some said they think retail pot shops should simply be allowed to roll with whatever the free market economy dishes out. Others think the number or location of pot stores, especially in the downtown, should be restricted — for either social or practical reasons. Others yet say there shouldn't be such a fuss, given how strictly regulated this industry is — compared to others — in a state that only just legalized it for recreational use in 2018.
"The same requirements are not there for people who sell alcohol," said town resident Holly Hamer.
"First, there were too many banks, then, too many lawyers and accountants; now, real estate brokers. I think this is just another phase and that the market will seek its own level."
Others think not — and that a proliferation of pot stores will stain the town.
"We went from number one town to marijuana town — that broke my heart," said resident Michelle Loubert.
Then, there is the "family values" crowd.
"We're very tourist-oriented, family-oriented," said Alex Sarbib. "It's hard to see the SoCo Creamery and kids with ice cream next door to a dispensary ... it's like oil and water."
But, several Select Board members took turns squashing this with the liquor argument. Burke went first.
"We aren't hearing any complaints about Gorham & Norton [package store] being next to a candy shop," she said.
Board member Leigh Davis' motion to ban cannabis retailers from what is zoned as the business district failed. Davis says she worries about the "optics" of unfettered growth of the industry in town.
In its varied concerns, the board has lots of company. Since legalization, communities across the state have had to grapple with a world fraught with complex decisions that appear to unfurl at every municipal turn.
Yet, towns like Great Barrington don't want to kill the rush either — having been warmed by the flow of this new cash into hurting, rural town coffers, and inspired by the hot streak of its first retailer, Theory Wellness, which sits near the borders of two states where marijuana is illegal.
As of now, the town already has issued five licenses and host agreements, including Theory's. Three shops in the business district are awaiting their state permits — Highminded LLC, Calyx Berkshire Dispensary and Commonwealth Cultivation. The fifth is at the south end of Main Street, at Reed Street — Rebelle now has its sign up.
Maggie Bona, who lives on Reed Street and co-owns Shire Glass, a cannabis accessory shop on Railroad Street, said that restricting or banning shops in the downtown could push them into neighborhoods like hers, which also borders the fairgrounds, where a company is trying to revive horse racing. She said this will make the traffic in that area even worse.
"So, now you're going from horse racing and cannabis on either side ... traffic is already really bad because of the bagel shop," she said.
'Where are we banning it to?'
Douglas Stephenson said that customers of pot shops will go wherever those shops are — that they don't need to be downtown, nor should they be shoved into neighborhoods.
David Gilmore, who owns some buildings in an industrial zone that forbids marijuana retail, said changing that zoning there could open up these areas.
Currently, the zoning restricts the shops to areas where retail is allowed, and at a distance of 200 feet from a school.
And, what about Housatonic, the town's northern village with its empty mills and other vacant buildings? Resident Bettina Montano wants to make sure that the culture there is protected as the village resurrects.
"Whatever happens [in Housatonic] will have a big effect," she said.
Yet, the subject of alcohol versus pot continued to surface.
"Fuel [cafe] has a full bar next to the toy store," said Abrahams, who often points out that there are five pharmacies in town at which to buy opioids.
Board Chairman Stephen Bannon wondered whether banning anything from downtown is a good idea.
"It's easy to say `Let's ban it,'" he said. "Where are we banning it to? I have a problem conceptually with banning anything in the downtown, because it's never been done before."
But, Bill Cooke, a member of the Select Board, said all of this might be moot when the neighboring states legalize.
"I think this is a short-term thing for us," he said.
Heather Bellow can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.