Amherst TM OKs 3 percent pot tax, limits shops to 8

  • Guy blows smoke on a dark background unknown

  • One wall of The Hempest in Northampton, is filled with a variety of glass , Thursday, December 15, 2016.

Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 08, 2017

AMHERST — A package of marijuana-related articles, including capping the number of retail outlets and collecting a local-option sales tax, will set the stage for the arrival of recreational marijuana shops next summer.

At the first session of fall Town Meeting on Monday, members limited to eight the number of stores that can set up in Amherst and established a 3 percent local option tax, the maximum allowed under state law, while also adopting a local bylaw prohibiting consumption of marijuana in public places and a zoning bylaw that creates a new use category that would guide town planners on where shops can locate.

Select Board member Connie Kruger said the five articles are the best and most responsible way for Amherst to prepare for retail marijuana sales in 2018, and come in advance of the state’s Cannabis Control Commission regulations, which are due out March 15. License applications will be accepted by the state beginning April 1.

By a 98-57 vote, Town Meeting approved a cap of eight establishments, though some members advocated for no restrictions, while others wanted tighter limits.

Select Board member Alisa Brewer said officials are working from the assumption that Amherst will have at least four shops, since that is the number of medical marijuana shops that have received letters of support, but not yet opened. These dispensaries are entitled, by state law, to transition to recreational sales.

Brewer compared the cap to how the Board of Health limits tobacco licenses, and the state restricts the number of alcohol licenses in each municipality.

Marla Jamate of Precinct 7 said she is concerned that a concentration of recreational shops will not be good for Amherst.

“I think eight is too many,” Jamate said, adding that recreational marijuana runs counter to higher education, which she called Amherst’s main business.

Peter Vickery of Precinct 2 suggested allowing just four stores. “If it goes really, really well, then move it up to eight,” Vickery said.

But Andrew Parker-Renga of Precinct 5 said he would oppose any limit, instead letting market forces determine the right number, and James Brissette of Precinct 6 said it baffles him why Amherst would restrict the number of shops, when communities in Colorado and Washington, where marijuana is also legal, have not done so.

The local option tax on marijuana sales passed 175-7. The state envisions communities using this revenue for education, enforcement and treatment.

Brewer said it is unknown how much education about marijuana will cost, but a revenue stream will help.

“We believe the maximum allowed, 3 percent, is right for Amherst,” Brewer said.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the money will go into the town’s general fund, which is where similar local option taxes on meals and hotels are placed.

A general bylaw prohibiting public marijuana use and imposing $300 fines was defeated by voice vote, but one with a $100 fine passed 117-73.

Carol Gray of Precinct 7 said lowering the fine was a matter of social justice, as many offenders might not be able to pay that amount.

Earlier, an effort by Vincent O’Connor of Precinct 1 to refer the bylaw to the Select Board to be reworked was defeated 99-86. O’Connor compared such a bylaw to the war on drugs, which he said was initiated by President Richard Nixon to harass college students and people of color.

Several members who spoke about potential injustice in issuing fines expressed confidence that the police department would show leniency.

Police Chief Scott Livingstone said he envisions enforcement being similar to open containers of alcohol on public ways, noting that most conclude with warnings, rather than arrests or fines.

In a 104-50 vote that cleared the needed two-thirds majority by just two votes, Town Meeting approved a Planning Board article that establishes the zoning districts in which a recreational marijuana store can locate. Any retailers would require a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

The bylaw will allow marijuana sales to occur in mixed-use buildings, even though the retailer would be within 300 feet of a residence.

But members representing North Amherst expressed concern that one of the future retailers intends to locate at the former Kimball’s Auction Gallery building on Meadow Street, which is situated in a residential and agricultural neighborhood.

O’Connor said this will impact the nearby J&J Farm, one of Amherst’s last dairy farms.

“Quite frankly, it’s not an appropriate location,” O’Connor said.

“The idea is absurd that there would be a retail store in that area,” said Mark Power, a Precinct 1 representative, who described it has being in the midst of hundreds of acres that are protected through the state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction program.

GTI Massachusetts NP Corp. already obtained a special permit, in 2016, for use of the former auction barn as a medical marijuana dispensary.

Town Meeting was scheduled to resume Wednesday by taking up articles including mandating net zero energy in new town buildings and a resolution in support of 100 percent renewable energy use in town.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com