THETFORD — A divided Selectboard earlier this month passed an ordinance banning the sale or cultivation of marijuana for commercial purposes, asserting that allowing a dispensary or retail outlet could draw unwanted traffic to town.
The 3-1 vote — Selectboard member Li Shen was absent but said she would have opposed the measure — came on Dec. 16 after a politically diverse coalition petitioned for its passage, led by Planning Commission member Dean Whitlock, a progressive-leaning independent, and Bill Huff, a Republican who ran for state Senate in 2018.
“For me it’s a matter of the character of the town. We know legalized cannabis is coming and there are going to be shops cropping up all over the place. My thinking is it’s better suited to the larger metropolitan areas — White River Junction, St. (Johnsbury), Montpelier — than it is in small towns,” Huff said Friday evening.
The three Selectboard members who voted for the measure — Stuart Rogers, Doug Stone and Mike Pomeroy — signed it that evening, though Rogers then resigned from the board on an unrelated matter.
First-term Selectboard member Nick Clark voted against the ordinance, noting that commercial marijuana is not yet legal in Vermont, though the Legislature is expected to advance a bill in 2020. Medical marijuana and small amounts grown for personal use are currently legal.
“Personally, I think the war on drugs has been an obvious failure. It has caused the most harm to people of color as well as people of low income,” Clark said in a phone interview on Sunday. “It hasn’t worked, so I don’t know why we would do it again.”
Clark also said, “At the very least, it should go to voters. It shouldn’t be something that a minimum of the Selectboard is deciding.”
The ordinance would “prohibit the sale, dispensing, and commercial cultivation of Cannabis” within the town, and carry with it a civil fine of up to $250 for a first offense, $500 for a second offense, and $750 for third and subsequent offenses.
Hemp would not be affected, nor would medical or recreational marijuana plants being grown for personal use in accordance with current law.
Whitlock, a 70-year-old freelance writer who has worked in the past with the nonprofit Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said he has long favored decriminalization of marijuana, and used it himself decades ago, but is concerned about the health effects and its “normalization,” especially if young people see it being grown and sold in town.
He asserted the typical marijuana plant can now have 18% THC, the main psychoactive compound, some six times the potency of marijuana in the 1970s.
“It’s a much stronger drug than it used to be, and we have more evidence than we used to that it’s more addictive than we thought, and it can cause mental health problems,” Whitlock said. “There is no reason to start selling it and wind up in a situation like we have with alcohol and tobacco.”
Rogers said he voted for the ordinance in part because there are “more additional costs and impacts,” such as on police services, that can come with dispensaries, and he believes Thetford’s location along Interstate 91, near a bridge to New Hampshire, makes it all the more problematic.
He said the town already is experiencing problems with its park-and-ride lot along Route 113 near Exit 14.
“It’s a drug draw,” Rogers said. “There’s a whole lot of illegal activity that happens there.”
Pomeroy, who runs Baker’s General Store in Post Mills, voted for the measure after hearing from residents. However, Pomeroy said, he has personal reservations about the measure, especially it being “anti-business.”
Stone could not be reached for comment.
Shen said she would have voted no.
“I am not in favor of taking away people’s right to grow crops on their land,” she said via email. “That is an infringement of property rights. The so-called ‘right-to-farm’ law already places onerous restrictions on farming.
“If commercial cannabis is legal in Vermont and growers can make it secure and conform with the restrictions of the right to farm law, they should be allowed to grow it.”
The ordinance takes effect in 60 days unless a petition signed by at least 5% of the checklist — roughly 120 voters — forces a special Town Meeting vote on the issue.
Thetford joins a couple of other Vermont towns, including Clarendon, to have passed such an ordinance. Huff said he is hopeful those towns’ prohibition against sales and commercial cultivation might be grandfathered in if the Legislature does legalize a commercial system.
John P. Gregg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3217.