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BRATTLEBORO — Brattleboro voters will decide March 2 on whether retail cannabis sales should be allowed in town.

Town Manager Peter Elwell said the reason for taking the vote now is to give the municipality time to develop regulations and understand processes “so we’re ready for the initiation of these businesses in 2022.”

The vote is binding but not permanent.

“Regardless of the outcome of this first vote, a town can hold another vote in the future,” Elwell said. “If the first vote is yes and the second vote is no, then any establishments that get licensed in the meantime would be allowed to continue to operate.”

A yes vote will trigger the Brattleboro Planning Commission to start establishing “zoning regulations that will apply to these land uses, to the retail business locations where this would be allowed, and there would be the creation of a local cannabis commission similar to the liquor commission,” he said. The Select Board would need to decide if it will serve as the cannabis commission, like it does when dealing with licensing as the liquor commission, or appoint one.

There would be different processes administered by the town and state, Elwell said. He expects licenses for cannabis sales would need to be approved locally and by the state similar to liquor licenses.

Without knowing how many retailers want to open in Brattleboro nor how many will be allowed, the town has no estimate on potential tax revenue. Elwell anticipates the town and state will be responsible and thoughtful in its rollout.

“I’m confident that the public’s interest can be protected,” he said.

The Brattleboro Planning Commission recently approved a statement after Cassandra Holloway, director of Building A Positive Community (BAPC), spoke at an earlier meeting about the town’s zoning powers. Holloway’s prevention coalition is educating the community and looking at potential harms of retail cannabis.

Vermont decriminalized marijuana possession in 2014 and legalized adult possession in 2018. Last year, the state approved the legal sale of marijuana and cannabis products, joining the ranks of 10 states that have laws regulating and taxing cannabis for adult use, including nearby Massachusetts.

S.54 or Act 164 became law in October 2020, outlining how Vermont will establish a system to tax and regulate retail cannabis sales, according to the statement.

The commission said zoning law currently allows districts in which certain uses are allowed and others are not, with different standards for development including building height, setbacks and open space. The law allows conditional uses, which require review by the town’s Development Review Board (DRB), and performance standards, which regulate impacts of a proposed development to prevent land uses that may affect neighboring properties. Zoning also takes into account parking and loading facilities, which ensure developments provide adequate off-street parking and loading to avoid traffic congestion on nearby streets, and regulation of signs.

Elwell said it’s too early to know whether every cannabis retailer will need to go through the DRB.

PUBLIC INPUTIf the community opts in to retail cannabis, the commission said it will “conduct a public process to consider whether the existing regulations are sufficient as written or whether changes are needed. In carrying out this duty, the Brattleboro Planning Commission will seek broad public involvement and keep its activities open and inclusive. It is the Planning Commission’s responsibility to draft zoning bylaws and the Select Board’s responsibility to adopt them. If zoning amendments are proposed, the Planning Commission and Select Board will both conduct formal public hearings, as required by law.”

Holloway said it’s “very heartening and exciting” to know the commission published the statement “to let people know that the commission is committed to listening, getting community input and doing what they can to address these concerns with the understanding that they still don’t really know what they’ll have control over in some area.”

When the vote was initially proposed, Holloway encouraged the town to wait since there were uncertainties. She said a section of the law on zoning has brought about conflicting legal interpretations so she approached the commission as well.

Holloway is concerned that the Cannabis Control Board, which was supposed to start in February, might not get started until May, and communities won’t have answers on questions they have about the rollout.

Substance use is always higher in Windham County compared to the rest of the state and Vermont is high compared to the rest of the U.S., she said, “so we are susceptible to substance use disorders and misuse that impacts people.”

In a 2019 survey conducted by BAPC, 30 percent of students at Brattleboro Union High School said they used cannabis. And 36 percent of LGBTQ youth and about 38 percent of students of color at the school reported using it.

Holloway said a state survey from 2019 showed about 40 percent of young adults in Windham County are using cannabis and about 40 percent of them use it more than 20 times a month, and that includes high school students.

“That number may have gone up with COVID when they’re not in school,” she said, adding that substance use rates and associated deaths are going up nationally right now. She suggested changes of structures in school and workplaces due to the pandemic could be contributing to the trend. “We have people relapsing sometimes after decades of being in recovery. That’s just our reality.”

BAPC recently put a survey out via its Facebook page and other groups, and mailed it to a list of 300 people. Holloway plans to send it to Town Meeting members in Brattleboro to get more input.

As of the interview, more than 300 people have responded and about 220 live in Brattleboro. BAPC filtered the results to focus on those who live in town.

Main concerns voiced to her group involve youth access and impact on vulnerable people such as those in recovery or those who are actively dealing with substance use disorder. Holloway said two women who live on Birge Street are worried about having another substance come into town.

Her hope is to hear from Groundworks Collaborative, which works with individuals facing housing issues, Turning Point Recovery Center of Windham County, downtown businesses and parents. She said one business owner is concerned how the businesses will be run.

“Is it going to match the vibe downtown, if there is one there?” she said. “How many will there be?”

About one-third of the respondents had concerns about locations and number of retailers, Holloway said. Bigger issues for respondents had to do with questions about how revenue will help the town and how much local control will be allowed.

The state is earmarking about 30 percent of tax revenue from retail cannabis sales to go toward prevention efforts, Holloway said. She called the allocation “great” but had concerns about it only coming once the money starts coming in.

Holloway said towns are advised to have a diverse group make up a local cannabis control commission. She would like to see members include representation from her group, Turning Point and a small business selling cannabis as a responsible vendor.

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Scott Sparks, owner of the Vermont Hempicurean in Brattleboro.

“That can be developed soon,” she said. “I really hope we use this time regardless of whether it’s a yes or no vote to look at who should be on this commission.”

LOCAL ECONOMY

Scott Sparks, owner of Vermont Hempicurean, who was at the commission meeting where the statement was approved and has taken out full-page ads in the Reformer advocating for the town to opt in, told the commission he wouldn’t open a retail cannabis store where he’s currently located on Flat Street across from the Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro, as he’s aware it’s not an acceptable place. He also needs more space.

In an interview, Sparks said he’s looking at other properties in Brattleboro and probably wouldn’t keep the current location. The hope is to run a business with separate stores for CBD, cannabis, and grow and supply on the same campus, with a space to grow cannabis.

Sparks anticipates he won’t be able to house the business near a school and church, and it will need to have plenty of parking and comply with some odor control regulations.

“It just doesn’t make sense for me to be here,” he said. “I like the concept of being downtown to support other businesses, all working together, but that’s just not reality.”

Sparks shared a study in which investigators affiliated with Boston College examined more than 1 million high school students from 1999 to 2017 in Colorado and Washington, the first couple of states to legalize cannabis for recreation, and found frequency of use declined by 16 percent in that age group when it became legal for adult recreational use. Another study he referenced came out of Temple University and found the number of young people admitted to drug treatment programs for marijuana-related issues dropped sharply between 2008 and 2017 nationally and in states where the drug was legalized for adult use. And another he cited, published by JAMA Pediatrics, suggested youth use declines as drug dealers are replaced by licensed dispensaries requiring a proof of age. But he acknowledged that other studies could probably show the opposite trends.

Sparks believes the biggest benefit for the town would be revenue coming from the 1 percent local option sales tax, which he said will be “a significant chunk of change” in addition to some of the tax dollars the state will provide to towns from such sales. Another benefit will be job creation.

“It’s not unlikely that I would provide up to 10 jobs, give or take,” he said. “That might not be right out of the gate. That’s just in-store jobs.”

He said ancillary jobs will go to carpenters, electricians and plumbers.

Sparks sees retail cannabis as “a tourist draw.” In his current store, he gets a lot of out-of-state residents asking about it, assuming that it’s legal.

“I probably turned away eight people on a random Wednesday and that’s not unusual,” he said.

The other benefit he’s touting has to do with replacing the black market with “safe, reliable and regulated products.” He said the underground marketplace will always exist to some degree, but if people know a product that is regulated, tested and safe, they’ll be more prone to buying from the licensed store.

“I have no intention of breaking the law,” he said. “If you tell me they have to be 21 to buy, no problem. I’ll card them. There’s going to be so much regulation in the cannabis business that it’s just not going to happen.”

Some parents will buy cannabis for their children, Sparks said, but “I can’t be responsible for that. They’re probably buying cannabis now and leaving it out.”

He doesn’t believe retail cannabis industry will create a lot of new users.

Robin Johnson, owner of The Stone Church who also attended the commission’s meeting, hopes the town will opt in. He sees retail cannabis as bringing more people to Brattleboro and being popular with his venue’s audiences. With Brattleboro being a border town to other states, he said, “we’ve got tourists coming in. It’s very important for the town to be ahead and move forward as quickly as regulations allow by the new laws so we can take advantage of that and establish ourselves as a stopping point for cannabis traffic.”

Asked if he has any plans for business, Johnson said, “I’m looking to be involved, just not sure if retail is the way to go. I think it’s important to support it.”

Shayne Lynn, executive director Southern Vermont Wellness, said his group has run a medical dispensary in Brattleboro for the last seven or eight years and wants to add retail sales to its offerings.

“We’re very interested in the outcome [of the vote] and very supportive of Brattleboro moving forward with retail sales of cannabis to the public,” he said. “We hope that the folks of Brattleboro agree with that.”

Lynn said his group has been waiting for the retail market to open up.

“The state has been talking about this for four years,” he said. “We’ve been part of those conversations and really wanting Vermont to catch up with Massachusetts. And New Jersey, at this point, is moving forward really quickly.”

Lynn sees an opportunity to bring more jobs to Vermont and attract a younger workforce. He said Vermont has “a great craft industry” that currently operates illicitly.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of success out there for the craft growers and we look forward to being a part of that,” he said.

Regarding law enforcement issues or attempts at theft at the dispensary, Lynn said, “We’ve been fortunate.” He doesn’t recall having any burglaries or robberies.

Lynn called security “a priority for us.” His group has alarms, cameras and safes, and background checks by the Federal Bureau of Investigation are required for employees.

Lynn anticipates similar background checks will be required for retail sales.

“It’s a very well regulated industry we’re in right now,” he said, adding that such rules will be “a really important part of the future marketplace.”

His group is waiting on the Cannabis Control Board to form to learn about the details of the program. Then Lynn expects to start examining what revenue will look like, potentially using nearby Greenfield or Holyoke in Massachusetts as models.

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