Many of the Massachusetts voters who opened the door to legal marijuana are closing the door to pot shops that want to operate in their communities, raising questions about how strong a foothold the cannabis industry can achieve in the state.
More than 100 municipalities already have imposed bans, moratoriums or zoning restrictions on commercial marijuana businesses, with a closely watched referendum scheduled for Tuesday in Milford, a central Massachusetts town of about 28,000 residents.
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In November, 52 percent of the town's voters approved Question 4, the state ballot initiative that legalized adult use of recreational pot. Milford already is home to two marijuana-related businesses that may go elsewhere if the referendum passes. The measure would not only prohibit retail stores from operating, but any licensed business associated with recreational pot.
The referendum is the first since the Legislature revised the voter-approved law and created a two-tiered system that requires communities where a majority of voters supported the ballot question to hold a referendum before pot shops can be banned. In places where a majority of voters rejected Question 4, it takes only a vote by the governing body — town meeting or city council, for example.
To entice cities and towns to welcome pot shops, lawmakers also increased the local option tax on marijuana sales from 2 percent to 3 percent, and allowed communities to negotiate host agreements with retailers that could net an additional 3 percent of gross sales.
The group spearheading the proposed ban in Milford argues it would protect children and public safety and safeguard the "integrity" of the community.
"Anyone who voted yes on Question 4 in November also voted yes to allow each community to hold its own vote to determine whether or not pot shops would be allowed to operate in their own communities," said Geri Eddins, spokeswoman for MilfordCARES. "In our mind we are exercising the will of the voters."
Opponents of the referendum say a ban would potentially deprive the town of hundreds of jobs and hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue from legal marijuana operations, including the two already in business. ProVerde Laboratories runs a testing lab, and Sage Naturals has a 31,000-square foot cultivation facility that supplies medical marijuana to dispensaries in Cambridge and Somerville.
The proposed ban would not include medical marijuana establishments, but would prevent either company from expanding into the more lucrative recreational marijuana market.
"We would have to relocate or shut down," said Chris Hudalla, founder and chief scientific officer for ProVerde.
Eddins dismissed the threat as "scare tactics" by opponents of the ban.
Turnout on Tuesday remains uncertain, but Bryan Cole of Milford Citizens for Fairness, a group urging residents to reject the ban, said there appears to be significant interest in town and "a lot of back and forth on social media" over the issue.
Should Milford voters decide to keep the door open for pot shops, legalization advocates hope it will begin to signal a shift away from prohibitions elsewhere in Massachusetts.
"Most towns will see within a few years that their counterparts are not suffering any problems from having these businesses in their communities," said Matthew Schweich, director of state campaigns for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Some of these bans will go away."