BY AVA BLUM-CARR ’21
South Hadley residents voted on Tuesday to ban the sale of recreational marijuana within the town, putting to rest the highly debated issue within the community. However, the controversial ballot question failed to increase voter turnout, which remained well under 20 percent, in keeping with the local elections of previous years.
In January, the South Hadley town meeting voted to bar recreational marijuana establishments from setting up shop, and Tuesday’s town-wide vote cemented the decision, though not by much.
According to Western Mass News, the marijuana ban proposed on the ballot passed by only 49 votes. In 2016, South Hadley voted to legalize recreational marijuana in the state of Massachusetts as a whole, but this approval won only by a small margin, reflecting the contentious nature of this issue.
On March 29, a public forum organized by the community group Know Your Town convened in the South Hadley Town Hall. Two panels of three people represented the opposing viewpoints regarding the sale of recreational marijuana. The panels were allotted fifteen minutes each in which to make their arguments, followed by questions from the audience.
The panel advocating a ban on the sale of legal, recreational marijuana within the town of South Hadley was comprised of three medical practitioners, Dr. Gregory Petrosky, Dr. Robert Roose, and Dr. Robert Abrams. All were South Hadley residents, specializing in psychology, addiction, and pediatrics, respectively.
The panel opposing the ban included Attorney Robert Evans, a longtime advocate for marijuana legalization who has practiced law in Massachusetts for over 35 years. He was joined by Renee Sweeney, chair of the South Hadley cultural council and Mount Holyoke alum, and Peter Bernard, the president and director of the Massachusetts Growers Advocacy Council, an organization that works with local and state governing bodies to support those involved in the cannabis trade.
“As three healthcare professionals and proud residents of South Hadley, we will vote yes to ban retail sale of marijuana in our town. We urge you to vote yes on Question 3 for three main reasons: to support our town’s health, to support our town’s youth, and to support our town’s wealth,” said Roose.
“Increasing the use of addictive substances at the local level can negatively impact our health and will put our youth at particular risk,” he added. All three panelists emphasized the increased proximity and access to marijuana that retail establishments would bring, which they believe would have a negative effect on the community. They also raised the question of the potential negative health effects of marijuana.
The other panel refuted this line of argument. “We’re not re-litigating the question of whether marijuana is good, or even whether marijuana should be legal. We already made that decision in 2016. The question before us tonight is not whether marijuana should be banned in South Hadley, it’s whether legal, regulated, licensed marijuana establishments should be banned in South Hadley,” said Evans. “[This is] the period between prohibition, which was sustained by decades of government-sponsored propaganda, and normalization. Normalization is and will be sustained by the realization that marijuana is relatively harmless.”
Bernard called into question the first panel’s warnings regarding a potential increase in marijuana addiction among adolescents. “We didn’t pass a law to sell to children. We passed a law to sell to people 21 and over,” said Bernard. “The last time I checked, marijuana is psychologically addictive, not physically addictive,” he added. “The other thing that [the other panel] failed to tell you is that there is no attainable overdose limit for cannabis. The only way cannabis is going to kill you is if a ton of it falls on your head.”
A resource guide released by the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2017 affirmed that no deaths resulting from a marijuana overdose have ever been reported.
“For the last fifty, sixty, seventy years, we’ve attempted to control marijuana through police and propaganda and prisons and law enforcements, and you know where that’s gotten us. Now, we have changed our policy, and we’re attempting to control it through regulation and taxation,” Evans continued. “The question is whether you want legal, licensed, and taxed marijuana or black-market, illegal marijuana.”
But despite the spirited arguments of the pro-marijuana panel, a small number of votes has now set the South Hadley sales ban into motion. “Four or five years from now, I’m confident we’ll all be asking ourselves: what was the fuss all about?” said Evans. “We’ll look back and wonder if South Hadley did the right thing by choosing to stay behind.”