Great Barrington mulls limits on number of retail marijuana shops

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Kate Burke said she doesn't want to see the town go whole hog on cannabis.

"It doesn't look great to have a ton of [marijuana] stores," the Select Board member said at a meeting with the town's Planning Board on Monday. "I personally don't want to see our downtown just become a dispensary."

The two boards met for an informal discussion about how to regulate the retail marijuana market now that it's legal in the state, and now that applications for town stores have grown to five, with other entrepreneurs in the wings. Also on Monday, the Select Board set the local application fee at $250.

But so far, the state's Cannabis Control Commission has issued only one license for retail sales. Between that application bottleneck and limited product supply to stock new shelves across the state, the town has time to sort out how to deal with sales of a long-demonized product that now is available for purchase.

Monday night's question: to cap or not to cap the number of retail stores in town. State regulations do not limit this, but they say towns and cities can decide to limit the number of stores to a minimum of 20 percent of the number of liquor stores in a community.

In Great Barrington, that would mean two marijuana shops, Burke said. She said she is concerned, not only from the perspective of marketplace balance and downtown aesthetics, but also because this particular product is a "controlled substance ... not banks or real estate [offices]."

"Calyx [Berkshire Dispensary] will look like a waiting room," Burke added, referring to one such shop set to open on Main Street but still waiting for state approval. "Is that what we want our downtown to look like? A bunch of waiting rooms?"

Yet, Burke appeared to be stranded on her own island of worry.

"It will look like a law office or real estate office from outside," said Select Board member William Cooke.

"It sounds like there's some fear involved ... where is your imagination going?" asked Brandee Nelson, the Planning Board's chairwoman, addressing Burke.

Nelson said the board had discussed the regulations extensively, and that the number of stores never had sparked concern.

"The Planning Board has shied away from quantitatively limiting anything ... banks, real estate ... it becomes a slippery slope." Nelson added that the board generally takes a "market-driven" approach.

Planning Board member Jonathan Hankin noted the controls already in place — the new retailers, for instance, have to get state and town approvals that must be renewed annually. And Hankin pointed out the financial benefits to the town, like sales tax revenue.

Select Board member Ed Abrahams, who with Burke is helping the board navigate marijuana regulation, said that the new retail shops are filling empty storefronts in the downtown, the existence of which has worried officials and residents.

But Ananda Timpane, executive director of the Railroad Street Youth Project, urged the boards to consider ways in which "to delay use as long as possible" in young people whose brains have not finished developing.

"I'm not recommending fear," Timpane said, noting that she is an advocate of legalization, and also of setting caps in an "incremental approval" process. "So we can feel this out."

Town resident Richard Ruth suggested "phasing in" one retailer at a time while assessing its effects. Planning Board member Malcolm Fick said it was too late, since five applications already have been made and the bylaws can't be rolled back retroactively.

Timpane said the town also might consider a cap on stores based on the population, which, in Great Barrington, is about 7,000 year-round but swells during the summer season.

Hankin said he wondered how to limit stores in a town that also "serves an audience of 35,000" people year-round. He also said these retailers will make marijuana use safer for young people who do buy marijuana, since the products will be tested.

"We have many unlicensed dispensaries today where kids buy weed," he said. "Places like the railroad tracks ... I think there's a chance of legal marijuana putting some kind of damper on the black market, and I think that's a good thing."

Select Board Chairman Stephen Bannon said Monday's discussion was just the first of many.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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