Don’t get excited — I haven’t gone to pot. The last time I saw the stuff up close and personal must have been at least 15 years ago. It’s probably been twice as long since I last came close to a contact high.
However, marijuana is on my mind. Two marijuana-related articles were on Tuesday night’s special town meeting warrant. As I walked across the dark playing fields en route to the school gym (where West Tisbury’s town meetings are held), I was not anticipating a smoke-in. I was thinking that a good way to make any subject boring is to turn it into a zoning article on a town meeting warrant.
The pros and cons of marijuana use were not on the table. The warrant articles were prompted by a ballot initiative passed last fall in Massachusetts, legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Ballot initiatives are simple: you vote yes or no; the initiative either passes or it doesn’t. Whereupon the overwhelming majority of voters forget about it.
If the initiative passes, though, our elected and appointed state officials have to work out how to implement the damn thing. As we all know, God, the Devil, and assorted interested parties duke it out in the details. Over the past year, state officials and committees have worked out those details. The basics: To start with, we’re to have no more than 35 medical marijuana dispensaries in the commonwealth. There must be at least one, but no more than five, in each of the commonwealth’s 14 counties. Dukes County — us — is the second-smallest of the lot; only Nantucket County is smaller. The widespread assumption is that there will be only one dispensary permitted in Dukes County.
The state has set stringent requirements for anyone seeking a permit. Four Vineyard applicants have met the requirements, two proposing a dispensary in West Tisbury and two proposing one in Oak Bluffs. So the pressure is on our two towns to come up with rules and regs under which a hypothetical dispensary might operate.
The marijuana-related articles were #7 and #12 on the warrant. In articles 1 through 6, we voted to pay our share to replace the windows in the Dukes County Courthouse, created two stabilization funds (one for road maintenance, one for the maintenance of town-owned buildings), and moved some money around. Finally we reached article 7, which proposed a bylaw that no one “shall smoke, ingest, or otherwise use or consume” marijuana or THC.
while in or upon any street, sidewalk, public way, footway, passageway, stairs, bridge, park, playground, beach, recreation area, boat landing, public building, schoolhouse, school grounds, cemetery, parking lot, or any area owned by or under the control of the Town; or in or upon any bus or other passenger conveyance operated by a common carrier; or in any place accessible to the public.
Wow, thought I. Someone’s a little nervous about this marijuana thing. Then people started talking. One guy proposed an amendment that would delete “ingest, or otherwise use or consume” from the bylaw. The point, he suggested, was to keep an individual’s use of marijuana from impinging on others in the vicinity. Smoking might so impinge; other intake methods would not. The amendment passed.
Next we addressed the daunting list of places where marijuana could not be smoked. If smoke was the issue, some asked, why couldn’t marijuana be restricted the same way that cigarettes are restricted? Much discussion ensued. It wasn’t going anywhere, but it didn’t stop either.
Then something in the assembled citizenry changed, or started to change. I could feel it, in part because it was happening in my own head. A little nudge: We’re not getting anywhere. We’re not going to settle this tonight. And, really, how important is it? This will apply to a relatively small number of Vineyarders — a ballpark figure of 200 was given at one point — many of whom are seriously ill. Do we really need this nitpicky bylaw to keep them from smoking in public?
One voter rose to say as much. Could we table the motion? (A motion is the parliamentary procedure that brings a warrant article up for discussion. In the U.S., “table” means to put aside, take off the table. In the rest of the English-speaking world, it means the opposite.) Moderator Pat Gregory explained that tabling a motion requires a two-thirds vote; the usual procedure in these cases is to postpone indefinitely, which only needs a majority. A motion to postpone indefinitely was duly made, seconded, and passed by a substantial majority.
Article 12, the last on the warrant, was about zoning: Where in town can marijuana dispensaries be located, and what conditions must be fulfilled before a special permit can be issued? The discussion went on for at least 45 minutes.
An early question: What if we decide not to adopt any rules and regs, i.e., reject the article altogether? Town counsel Ron Rappaport explained that the commonwealth has said that no city or town can bar dispensaries altogether. What if a jurisdiction decides against adopting rules and regs? That, he said, is unclear. What-ifs are generally settled in court, and this law is so new that no case law has developed to help the legal beagles interpret it. By not adopting guidelines, we might be abdicating whatever control we have over the process.
Discussion zeroed in on location. Article 12 proposed amending the town’s zoning bylaw to allow marijuana dispensaries in the mixed business district and the two light industrial districts. Some wanted to exclude the mixed business district because that’s where the M.V. Public Charter School is. Others proposed excluding the light industrial area that includes the town dump because there’s a “residential area” close by. If adopted, these proposals would have limited dispensaries to the town-controlled area at the Airport Business Park, with no guarantee that there was actually space available there.
It wasn’t hard to see where this was going, or what was behind it: the fear that the marijuana dispensaries would attract villainous lowlifes who would prey on children and peaceful householders. Similar fears, of everything from terrorists to vaccinations to refined white flour, are at large in the country, and so far attempts to counter them haven’t been very effective.
But — before my very eyes — the citizens of my town pushed back. One guy reminded us that marijuana was not being made available to the general public. A woman pointed out that she’d been unable to obtain a certificate for medical marijuana use, even though she has a possibly qualifying condition: this disputed the specter raised by some that anyone who wanted a certificate could get one. I went to the microphone and said that though I could walk from my apartment to the dump in five minutes, that light industrial district was a world apart from where people lived. (Don’t be thinking “suburban subdivision” here. You can barely see the houses for the trees.) Another man noted that Conroy’s Apothecary was directly across the road from the charter school; it dispensed prescription drugs far more dangerous than marijuana and so far the purchasers of such drugs hadn’t corrupted any students.
Article 12 passed almost as written. The only amendment changed the permit-granting authority from the board of selectmen to the zoning board of appeals, which made perfect sense because ordinarily granting permits is the ZBA’s job.
The meeting had come to order around 7 p.m. It was adjourned around 9. Two hours is considerably longer than it takes to vote, at least in my town. As I walked home across the dark field, flashlight in hand, I thought about all the hoo-hah that surrounds voting, especially the nasty maxim “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” That’s crap. If all you do is vote, you’re leaving the details up to others — anonymous committees, perhaps, or the staff of whoever you elected. No wonder the results are so often not what the voters intended.