BELLOWS FALLS — Voters at Town Meeting will get to decide whether to allow the sale of legal cannabis in Rockingham.
On a 4-1 vote, the Rockingham Select Board Tuesday night decided to leave the issue up to the voters.
The Rockingham board, which was meeting jointly with the Bellows Falls Village Board of Trustees for one of their regular quarterly meetings, heard from advocates against substance abuse about their concerns.
They said while they are not opposed to the town allowing the sale of cannabis, they are concerned about the possible exposure of children, particularly children whose families have a history of substance abuse.
Under the state law, only people 21 and older will be able to buy cannabis legally. Legal sales are slated to begin in October 2022. Only about 30 Vermont towns have currently opted in to allow retail sales.
But since Rockingham and Bellows Falls do not have a local option sales tax, the town currently does not stand to benefit financially from the sale of cannabis, according to Rockingham Select Board member Rick Cowan, who had suggested the townwide vote.
Laura Schairbaum and Deb Witkus, both of Greater Falls Connections, said they want the townspeople to make an informed decision and that their priority is “healthy youth.”
“We want voters to decide,” said Witkus, “with some due diligence.”
Schairbaum noted that the $100 “licensing” fee goes directly to the state, eliminating any local financial benefit. She urged the town to “take it slow, look at the pros and cons.”
Witkus said that kids’ mental health has been under extreme strain since COVID-19.
Cowan said that if the 2022 Legislature passes the 1 percent excise tax it would make Rockingham and Bellows Falls “less competitive with other towns” that have allowed retail sales.
Witkus said Greater Falls does not want the cannabis vote to have a polarizing effect on the town, and she stressed the town needs a balanced conversation.
In the end, only Select Board Chairman Peter Golec voted against it, but he didn’t give his reasons for his opposition.
Bellows Falls Village President Deborah Wright questioned whether the village has a say in the matter, or whether it is strictly a town issue.
“If the town votes yes, it’s a pretty good proxy,” said Trustee James “Jiggs” McAuliffe, who said the trustees could put it on the warning for the annual village meeting in May. “I’m inclined to go with what the town voted.”
Rockingham Development Director Gary Fox noted that New Hampshire has not legalized the purchase of recreational cannabis for personal use, which for once would give Vermont merchants a slight advantage over sales tax-free New Hampshire.
“There is not the competition,” he said.