October 23, 2014

Town OKs setting regulations for marijuana dispensaries

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By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

If a medical marijuana dispensary looks to open in Vermont, Williston will be on its list of options.

The Selectboard on Monday night voted 4-1 to instruct the Planning Commission to develop regulations for potential dispensaries in town, with Selectboard member Chris Roy casting the opposing vote.

After hearing from the Planning Commission members and Williston’s police chief, the board was faced with three options: prohibit marijuana dispensaries in town; develop town regulations in addition to the state’s regulations; or do nothing, letting the state oversee regulations.

The Planning Commission did not come to a consensus during discussions in the fall, but commission members did express a preference against doing nothing.

“Given the current law, which only allows four dispensaries and limits the number of clients, the likelihood of Williston ever being considered is probably slim, but … we need to make some kind of decision,” Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig said.

Selectboard member Debbie Ingram said she had reached out to residents, both people she knew and those she didn’t. She said she received a number of emails after posting a request for comments on Front Porch Forum.

“The response I got was overwhelmingly in favor of instructing the Planning Commission to come up with regulations to allow dispensaries in town,” she said.

Ingram read from one resident’s email describing a friend whose struggles with multiple sclerosis were eased by medical marijuana and two cancer patients who used medical marijuana for a “higher quality of life” during treatment.

“‘People using medical marijuana are fighting for their lives, not focused on getting high,’” Ingram read from the email.

Selectboard member Chris Roy, however, said he got an entirely different response from the residents he spoke with regarding the issue.

Most people asked why dispensaries would have to be in Williston and what the police department had to say about it, Roy said.

“I don’t pretend to know nearly enough to pass judgment on the merits of medical marijuana, but I heard from our police chief as to his concerns,” Roy said.

Williston Police Chief Todd Shepard recommended that the Selectboard move to prohibit dispensaries in town in a memo at the end of last year.

Shepard told the Selectboard in December that the dispensaries would create a conflict for his officers, since the state law allowing dispensaries contradicts federal law prohibiting marijuana sale or use for any purpose. Shepard also voiced concerns about burglary and the possibility that the dispensary would attract drug dealers looking for new customers.

Roy also said he spoke with a U.S. attorney, who told him that the Department of Justice’s position on medical marijuana dispensaries is to not intervene unless the dispensary shows signs of organized crime.

Jay Michaud noted that some states have already moved to legalize marijuana, and laws regulating marijuana could be entirely different in the future. Two bills were introduced in the Vermont legislature recently moving to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

“In 20 or 25 years it will change, so I would love to be able to control it … before it is just thrown in our laps,” Michaud said.

Under current state law, up to four dispensaries can operate in Vermont at any one time. The dispensaries must be not for profit, must have a limit of 1,000 patients and cannot be located within 1,000 feet of a daycare or school, among other regulations.

In September 2012, the Vermont Department of Justice announced conditional approval of two dispensaries, one in Burlington and one in Waterbury.

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