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To all Reading Voters –
At the April 4 Town election, Reading voters will have a chance to vote on Question 1, a ballot question that asks voters to ban commercial marijuana establishments in Reading. The following is a set of Frequently Asked Questions concerning this ballot question:
1. What was the result of passage of State Ballot Question 4 in November?
On November 8, 2016, Massachusetts’s voters approved a citizen’s petition (State Ballot Question 4) to legalize the so-called recreational use of marijuana by a vote of 53.7% to 46.3%. This will allow individuals 21 years or older, to use, possess, and cultivate, marijuana in established amounts commencing on December 15, 2016. In addition, the Cannabis Control Commission (“CCC”), a newly established state agency, must promulgate regulations by March 15, 2018, and begin accepting applications from commercial marijuana businesses, including cultivators, testing facilities, product manufacturers, and retailers (“marijuana establishments”). The CCC must act on all applications within 90 days of receipt. Therefore, the first marijuana establishment will be authorized to open its doors no later than June 2018.
2. What local controls on commercial marijuana establishments did State Ballot Question 4 permit?
State Ballot Question 4 can be viewed as having two components: legalizing personal use and legalizing commercial marijuana establishments. Although the CCC will be in charge of all licensing, the statute creates a significant role for municipalities in the regulation of commercial marijuana establishments.
Question 4 provides that cities or towns may adopt an ordinance or bylaw approved by local voters to limit or prohibit commercial marijuana establishments in the community (but NOT to limit the personal use of marijuana). Note that Question 4 did not affect the status of medical marijuana dispensaries, which were authorized and regulated by a previous statewide ballot question and amendments to Reading’s Zoning Bylaws. The detailed steps for statewide implementation of Ballot Question 4 are still being worked out on Beacon Hill.
3. Why has the Board of Selectmen put Question 1 on the April 4, 2017, Town election ballot?
Reading voters rejected State Ballot Question 4 by a vote of 6,800 yes (44.9%) and 8,353 no (55.1%). After the results of the local vote, the town took proactive steps in late November to advertise a Public Hearing for the purposes of discussing changes to the Zoning Bylaws. This had the effect of stopping any commercial marijuana applicants during the period of time between the December 2016 effective date of the statute and the date the state did ultimately step in to delay the entire process.
Town Counsel has had extensive discussions with different parts of state government and has concluded that three steps must be accomplished if the town wishes to prohibit the commercial aspect of State Ballot Question 4: (1) approval of the ban by Reading voters in a local election; (2) an affirmative vote by Town Meeting to enact such a prohibition by amendments to the Zoning Bylaws; and (3) approval of a Special Act by both Town Meeting and the MA Legislature to solidify the first two actions.
4. The Legislature is moving to enact clarifying legislation to Question 4, and the Cannabis Control Commission is about a year away from promulgating rules and regulations around how Question 4 will work. What is the urgency to pass Question 1 in Reading before we know how the law will be enacted?
The banning of commercial marijuana establishments in Reading can only be accomplished by an affirmative vote of the Town’s voters. Action by Reading voters is needed this year because there will not be another scheduled Town election until April 2018. Waiting until April 2018 to present this issue to voters would potentially push final state approval of Reading’s new zoning bylaw past June 2018, when the first marijuana establishment will be authorized to open its doors.
Thus on April 4th, 2017, under Question 1, Reading voters will be asked their opinion on prohibiting commercial marijuana establishments.
5. How many cities and towns have moved to prevent recreational marijuana so far?
The Town of Westborough’s voters approved a ban on commercial marijuana establishments on March 7. The Towns of North Reading, Sturbridge and Lynnfield and the City of Peabody plan to submit similar measures to their voters in local elections this spring. Other communities are in the process of discussing the issue.
6. What is the effect of a YES vote on Question 1?
The ban, if approved by voters and Town Meeting, would prohibit all retail sales, distribution and cultivation of recreational marijuana by businesses in Reading, but would not affect medical marijuana establishments nor personal marijuana use. If the voters approve Question 1 on April 4, the April 24 Town Meeting will be asked to approve Warrant Articles that will 1) enact the commercial marijuana establishment ban by amending Reading’s Zoning Bylaws and 2) request a Special Act of the state legislature to finalize the ban. Such Special Acts have been sought and approved by the legislature in the past, the most recent example being the Senior Property Tax Relief act that was signed into law earlier this year.
7. Are there any possible unintended consequences of a Yes vote on Question 1, such as a loss of property or sales tax revenue that would have been realized from the commercial sale of marijuana in Reading?
Minimal impacts to Reading tax revenues are anticipated. Commercial properties pay property tax at the same rate irrespective of the nature of the businesses they contain, so there is no impact there. Under new state law, a local-option sales tax of up to 2% may be imposed for commercial marijuana sales (as is the case for restaurants and hotels) if approved by Town Meeting. Recent speculative estimates for such local revenues (e.g., Boston Business Journal) suggest no significant loss of revenue for localities such as Reading.
8. If Question 1 does not pass, can the town still prevent the sale of recreational marijuana in town?
No. Without approval of Reading voters, no such ban can be enacted. Without approval of an outright ban by the voters, only a temporary moratorium on the sale of recreational marijuana could be enacted by Town Meeting. Typically such moratoria are only allowed for one year.
9. If Question 1 passes, is it permanent or binding? What’s the process of changing our mind?
Such a ban, if enacted, would be permanent and binding, until and unless the Town were to reverse it by presenting a rescission option to both the voters and Town Meeting for consideration.
In conclusion, I hope this letter has been helpful to Reading voters in determining their position on Question 1.
Daniel A. Ensminger
Member, Reading Board of Selectmen