News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, February 8, 2018
No regulation prompts proposed pot ban

by Rich Hewitt

Faced with a lack of action by state legislators to regulate retail marijuana sales, the selectmen have proposed a townwide ban on retail marijuana establishments and social clubs.

An ordinance “prohibiting retail marijuana establishments and retail marijuana social clubs” will appear on the warrant for the annual town meeting in March, which selectmen approved Monday, February 5. A public hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for Monday, February 19.

Stonington finds itself in the same predicament as many other towns across the state. After voters approved the recreational ballot question in November 2016, the town waited for the state to come up with regulations and guidelines governing the production and sale of marijuana. When that didn’t happen early in 2017, Stonington adopted a six-month moratorium on those activities, which was later extended for an additional six months. The town’s moratorium runs out on March 5, the same day as the town meeting, and still the state does not have any regulations for the recreational pot industry.

“The state has failed to meet its obligation to come up with those rules,” Chairman Chris Betts said Monday at the regular selectmen’s meeting.

And there’s no sign that those rules will be coming any time soon. There have been predictions that it could be this time in 2019 before state regulations will go into effect.

“It’s not clear how long it’s going to be for the state to come up with something,” Town Manager Kathleen Billings said. “The state has not given the towns any guidance on this. We need to have a ban on retail marijuana until the state comes up with something.”

Without state regulations, the town has few options, but Betts questioned whether it was feasible for the town to go on its own and not wait for the state.

“We could have our own laws,” he said.

Billings quickly quashed that idea, noting that regulating retail marijuana is extremely complicated and involves not only sale and location of retail outlets, but regulating the manufacture and testing of the product as well as siting the location of marijuana social clubs, which also will be legal under the law. If the town went out on its own, Billings said, it would be open to lawsuits challenging its regulations.

“It would be a legal quagmire,” she said. “It’s beyond what the town can handle at this point.”

Selectman Evelyn Duncan agreed.

“If we’re going to have it, I’d like to know all of the guidelines,” she said.

The ban might not be forever, Billings noted. There is some support on the board for allowing retail marijuana operations in town, and Stonington voters favored the ballot question during the 2016 vote. Billings said that someone could bring a petition to the town seeking to end the ban and, once the state provides guidelines, the selectmen could then develop a local ordinance that could allow both retail operations and social clubs, if voters approved.

Warrant articles

The proposed ban on retail marijuana sales was not the only article the selectmen added to the town meeting warrant on Monday. Several non-budget items will appear on that warrant including:

The town’s state-approved comprehensive plan;

establishment of a Waterfront Reserve Account, as recommend in the comprehensive plan, along with a separate articled allocation of $50,000 from surplus to fund that account;

$10,000 from surplus to serve as matching funds for a grant to study the feasibility of expanding high-speed fiber internet options to town;

$100,000 from surplus to fund the downtown sidewalk project;

$200,000 from surplus to fund upgrades at the transfer station;

$400,000 from surplus for construction of a new salt/sand shed at the town garage; and

an article submitted by the Island Community Center board seeking support to save the existing community center building at the former school building and to extend the lease for an additional six months; and for the ICC board and town officials to collaborate on a long-term plan for building improvements and program enhancement.