June 20, 2018

Town’s medical marijuana debate a mixed bag

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

On election night, as a majority of voters in Colorado and Washington were approving the legalization of recreational marijuana, the Williston Planning Commission was faced with its own marijuana vote.

The local cannabis question, which was remanded by town officials to the Planning Commission for comment, concerns whether Williston should unconditionally allow, allow with local oversight or prohibit a potential medical marijuana dispensary in town.

Under current state law, municipalities are granted the authority to prohibit or oversee the local approval process of medical marijuana dispensaries. State law also specifies that a maximum of four dispensaries may operate within the state at any one time, and that such facilities cannot be located within 1,000 feet of a school or daycare facility.

The Vermont Department of Public Safety has conditionally approved dispensaries in Burlington and Waterbury.

The Planning Commission previously discussed medical marijuana dispensaries at its Aug. 7 and Sept. 18 meetings, although the latter meeting lacked a quorum.

On Nov. 6, Chairman Jake Mathon formally took a stand on the matter.

“I’m just having a little trouble with the fact that we’re talking about permitting and allowing marijuana use when the Selectboard themselves won’t even allow cabaret licenses for bars,” Mathon said. “I think it’s a bad idea, that’s my position, and I don’t think we should have them, and I think it also flies in the face of ridiculousness that the Selectboard is asking us to weigh in on even allowing these when they don’t even allow a legal product to be sold.”

Commission member Michael Alvanos agreed with Mathon.

“I’m going to go on record, too, and say that I don’t think that we should allow them and I think they should be prohibited here in town,” Alvanos said. “I think marijuana is still considered a very dangerous drug by the federal government. It’s still classified by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) as being up there with cocaine.”

Meghan Cope argued that dispensaries shouldn’t be outright prohibited and should instead be subject to discretionary permit approval through the Williston Development Review Board.

“I think my position is that we should recommend that the Selectboard consider one of those middle ground statements, where we allow (dispensaries) but there would have to be a permitting process,” Cope said. “To me, that’s the most appealing, because it allows it to be a public hearing and for people to weigh in.”

Kevin Batson sided with Cope.

“The real problem is OxyContin and opiates,” Batson said. “There’s an upside (to medical marijuana) for people who, say, have cancer and can’t eat and marijuana helps them with their digestion. The upside is a lot more up than the downside is down, so I’m with Meghan.”

Sensing a stalemate, Williston Director of Planning and Zoning Ken Belliveau made a peace pipe offering by proposing that he draft a letter to the Selectboard reflecting the split decision.

The Planning Commission agreed with Belliveau’s suggestion, with Cope adding that the letter should stress that none of the commission members advocated letting the state have unabated jurisdiction.

“We do have one consensus point, which is that none of us think we should do nothing,” Cope said.

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