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Editorial: Retail Politics; Ascutney Shop Raises Hackles

Few rural towns relish playing host to stores that cater to people’s vices, so the fact that opposition has emerged in the Ascutney section of Weathersfield to the presence of the Magic Mushroom — a purveyor of adult videos and smoking paraphernalia used for marijuana, among other things — isn’t surprising. The Ascutney version of this scenario has a couple of interesting twists worth noting, though.

For starters, the Magic Mushroom had been in town for three years without much hullabaloo. What changed is the location: The shop moved to a location near the intersection of routes 5 and 44A, which gave it a larger storefront and also raised some concerns about its proximity to the Weathersfield School, which is within a mile.

Another thing that has changed is Vermont’s approach to marijuana possession. It remains illegal — unless you’re using it for medicinal purposes with the blessing of a physician — but the state has decriminalized possession of small amounts. A person found in possession of less than an ounce is subject to a civil fine. This reflects legislators’ judgment that criminalizing marijuana use is ineffective and a waste of the criminal justice system’s limited resources.

In any case, what the store is selling is legal; the smoking devices are marketed for tobacco use. Opponents rightly dismiss that as a convenient fiction, and say they’re worried about what sort of message having a head shop sends to the town’s young people.

“We’re living in a society where there’s rising health care costs, increasing substance abuse among youths,” said Vicki Gass, a coordinator with the Mt. Ascutney Prevention Program. “So what is the message we’re saying to kids if we allow a business like this to expand? Especially when they’re close to schools.”

As important as the battle against substance abuse is, the only messages that concerned citizens should worry about are those that they can control. The Magic Mushroom is a legal business, and the community has very little say about what sort of legal businesses locate where retail activity is permitted. Some types of businesses can be excluded from areas through zoning, but there must be a legitimate basis for such prohibitions that go beyond mere disapproval of the nature of the business. We’re not sure that being located sort of close to a school is the same thing as being in the immediate neighborhood, so it’s far from certain that the proximity of the Weathersfield School would be an acceptable reason for trying to zone out businesses such as the Magic Mushroom.

But this is exactly as it should be. While some people in Ascutney might disapprove of the sale of waterpipes, others surely object to peddling tobacco, alcohol, violent video games, fast food, firearms and any number of other goods. For obvious reasons, communities aren’t allowed to discriminate among legal businesses based on moral views, sensibilities — or even generalized, albeit legitimate, concerns about public health.

What message do towns send by allowing tobacco, alcohol or fatty food to be sold, as is the case almost everywhere? None, other than that they do not, cannot and should not interfere with businesses’ right to engage in legal commerce. If young consumers need to be educated about the potential dangers of using those products, that is an entirely separate matter. Meanwhile, Ascutney is perfectly capable of pretty much ignoring the fact that the Magic Mushroom is operating in its midst — after all, it has been doing so for three years.

CORRECTION

This editorial has been amended to correct an earlier error. Magic Mushroom recently moved to a site on Route 5 just south of the Route 44A intersection. Its new location is about a half-mile farther from the Weathersfield School than its previous site along Route 5 near Route 131. An earlier version of this editorial gave an incorrect location for the shop.