February 21, 2020

Marijuana laws: fed vs. local

Regulations create conflict for DRB members

By Adam White

Observer correspondent

Marijuana legalization has been a divisive topic nationwide for decades. But as the issue reaches an important juncture in Williston, the lines being drawn have surprisingly little to do with pro and con.

A medical marijuana dispensary proposed for 4540 Williston Road is on the verge of possibly being granted a discretionary permit by the Development Review Board, yet public backlash has been virtually nonexistent. Instead, conflicts of interest for two board members—hinging on discrepancies between federal and state regulations governing the drug—have delayed the next step of the project.

DRB members Brian Jennings and John Bendzunas, both employees of the federal government have recused themselves from voting on the dispensary project due to federal marijuana regulations. Without them, the granting of a permit would require positive votes from four of the remaining five members, a majority of the entire board, not just those present for the vote.

A public hearing on the project was scheduled for Tuesday night’s DRB meeting, but was postponed until July 14. Chairman Scott Rieley was absent from Tuesday’s meeting, meaning the board would have only had four members to vote on the project—even with Planning Commission member Michael Alvanos filling in—due to Bendzunas and Jennings recusing themselves.

That would constitute a quorum, but require all four votes in the affirmative in order for the permit to be granted. Senior Planner Matt Boulanger said that when told of the situation, the applicant requested that the hearing be delayed.

“We informed them that this might not be the best night for this hearing, and they agreed,” Boulanger said.

Bendzunas is a Supervising U.S. Probation Officer, and said he has been employed by United States Probation—a federal agency—for 15 years.

“I have a professional conflict with the application as an employee of the Federal Judiciary,” wrote Bendzunas in an email. “While the State of Vermont permits marijuana to be used to treat certain medical conditions, Federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance.

“In light of the tension between state and federal laws, I will be recusing myself from the application.”

Jennings works for the Department of Homeland Security, with close to 30 years of federal employment on his resume. He said it was made clear to him and his colleagues that Vermont’s stance on the drug would not supersede or in any way change the one held at a federal level.

“Right after states started legalizing marijuana, we started getting notifications that it is still against the (federal) law,” Jennings said.

Jennings said that regardless of his personal feelings on the issue, he chose to recuse himself because his voting record on it could be end up being a factor in background checks for security clearances and other official purposes.

“I thought it was best to steer clear of it,” he said.

Town planner Ken Belliveau said employment issues are a common reason for recusal.

“This is a little more atypical, because the majority of the time board members will recuse themselves from a situation in which the outcome could potentially be of benefit to their employer,” Belliveau said. “But in this case, the assumed risk is that it could jeopardize their employment.”

When asked if he anticipated the federal government aligning itself more with individual states when it comes to marijuana legislation, Jennings drew a parallel with another current issue.

“It’s likely that it will be like gay marriage,” he said. “Certain states will take the lead on it, and maybe in time the federal laws will change.”

While the board members dealt with their own conflicts on the issue, public reaction to the proposed dispensary remained nonexistent. Despite the hearing having been originally scheduled for Tuesday’s meeting, everyone in attendance was there for other business rather than the discussion of the marijuana topic.

Belliveau called the lack of public input on the issue so far “surprising.”

“We have had no one from the public reach out to us directly on this,” he said. “What that tells me is that this is not a controversial issue in this part of the world.”

Belliveau did speculate that the dispensary’s proposed location in Williston’s Industrial Zoning District West may be a factor in the silence surrounding its movement through the early stages of the development process.

“In my experience, what tends to generate the most reaction from the public is when something is proposed in their backyard,” he said. “Nobody lives next door to where this is being proposed.”

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