Bethel selectmen voted unanimously Monday to hold a referendum Nov. 6 on whether to allow adult-use marijuana establishments in the town.
There will be four separate questions, on allowing four types of establishments to operate:
1) adult use marijuana cultivation facilities
2) adult use marijuana stores
3) adult use marijuana products manufacturing facilities
4) adult use marijuana testing facilities.
The selectmen’s decision was made despite protests from some marijuana supporters and members of the town’s marijuana committee, which has been working for a year on proposed ordinances to govern such establishments.
The debate Monday was on which should happen first: the full development of the proposed ordinances for residents to vote on, or a vote on the basic question of whether to allow marijuana, in order to determine whether to proceed with the development of the proposed ordinances.
Selectman Don Bennett said the latter could save voters from having “to wade through four different ordinances and public hearings” sometime next year if the committee produced fully developed proposals first.
But Attorney Matthew Kanwit, representing Bethel resident Gabe Stoppini, told Bennett that “trying to simplify something that is complex – it doesn’t make it easier, it makes it harder to explain and get across. You’re adding a step into a process that’s already started. Let the process continue. Your constituents don’t know enough to know what is right right now. They need to be educated, as you’ve been.”
Resident/Attorney Jarrod Crockett agreed. “People will be voting on an abstract idea. They won’t know the facts. Let the committee work.”
Another resident said she knew people who voted against medical marijuana storefront businesses at the June Town Meeting because they did not know what an ordinance governing them would look like.
There was also considerable discussion about the committee’s difficulty in reaching consensus. Two members – Rick Whitney and Bob Chadbourne – recently resigned.
Interim Town Manager David Holt said the referendum could present a mechanism to address the consensus problem by possibly narrowing down the options among the four questions, to see what voters might find acceptable.
Selectman Andy Whitney said if voters turn down all four questions, there would likely be no need for the committee to proceed. If one or more is approved, the committee would then have a clearer idea of how to proceed.
The motion for the referendum, made by Selectman Lloyd Sweetser, also stated that the committee should be encouraged to continue its work between now and November.
But some said going the referendum route would make the panel obsolete between now and then.
Bennett said that education of the public could go forward leading up to the vote.
The committee has prepared a map displaying which areas of town, including Bethel Village, would be excluded from having marijuana establishments under the proposal members have worked on so far.
A public hearing will be scheduled ahead of the referendum, selectmen said.
In addition to the public hearing, detailed definitions of the four types of establishments to be voted on will be available to voters in the booths on referendum day.
In his letter of resignation from the marijuana committee, Chadbourne said that with the makeup of the committee “it has been impossible for me to have any meaningful impact.” He said the majority of members are pro-marijuana. His main interest, he said, is in health and safety.
Whitney said he was against marijuana legalization because it is illegal at the federal level, and he wanted it banned in Bethel. But when he saw he was in the minority on the panel, he said he then hoped to get the town to vote up or down on allowing marijuana.
He also said he felt the committee was proceeding too quickly, before the state has finalized its language governing establishments. Whitney said his efforts now would be most effective “outside the confines of this committee.”
Some pro-marijuana committee members said Monday they felt there had been obstruction to their work on the committee.
Selectmen said that in appointing the committee last year, they had tried to choose a diverse group.