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Jim Kenyon: Ascutney’s Self-Appointed Vice Squad

I don’t envy the members of Ascutney’s self-appointed vice squad. Navigating life with one’s own moral compass is tricky enough. But deciding the appropriate values for an entire community?

No thanks.

This summer, a half a dozen residents began meeting to talk about what could be done to put Ascutney back on the straight and narrow.

Or, more precisely, how to prevent businesses selling what they perceive as unsavory merchandise (specifically, pot paraphernalia) from moving into town.

I’m told attendance at some recent meetings has swelled to 15 or so, which tells me that more than just a couple of folks are worried that Ascutney could become the Upper Valley version of Boston’s old Combat Zone.

So, what spurred the vice fighters into action?

The Magic Mushroom.

Never mind that the shop, which sells pipes and other instruments that can be used to smoke marijuana, has been in business in Ascutney for nearly six years. Apparently, The Magic Mushroom’s move in July from one end of town to the other was more than some residents could bear.

Last week, the Weathersfield Selectboard (Ascutney is a village of Weathersfield) was presented with the “first draft” of a proposed ordinance that would prohibit “establishments that sell or display drug and tobacco paraphernalia” from setting up shop in town.

“We owe it to our young people not to be a place where all of this is available,” resident Ginger Wimberg told the Selectboard. “It’s wrong, and we need to take a stand.”

The proposed ordinance, which supporters say was written almost verbatim from one adopted in Ludlow, Vt., earlier this year, would also ban state-sanctioned medical marijuana dispensaries.

I get why some Ascutney residents worry that certain types of businesses might not be good for the town’s image. But if medical marijuana dispensaries are undesirable, what’s next? CVS?

In the 1970s, the same building on Route 5 that now houses The Magic Mushroom was home to a nightclub called the Savage Beast, which wasn’t exactly known for attracting the Lawrence Welk crowd (although a fledgling rock band with Lake Sunapee area roots named Aerosmith played a few gigs there).

Cookie Shand, one of the residents behind the proposed ordinance, reminded the Selectboard that Ascutney was once known as “Smutneyville” for a reason. Until the 1980s, Ascutney had a drive-in movie theater on Route 5 that in its later years featured a genre of films that Linda Lovelace fans could appreciate.

But just because a business offers entertainment or sells merchandise that offends the sensibilities of some residents, does that mean it should be outlawed?

The group pushing the proposed ordinance may have good intentions, but it still gives off a we-know-what’s-best-for-our-community vibe. They say the proposed ordinance is intended to “promote health and safety of children.”

But why stop with a ban on so-called head shops? Why not include fast-food restaurants? Candy stores? Gun shops? All can be detrimental to the health or safety of children.

During a recent visit to Ascutney, I stopped at a convenience store with a walk-in cooler that offered 30-packs of Bud Light. I wondered why residents who think that “protecting children from exploitation by those promoting the illegal consumption of marijuana, tobacco and tobacco related products to minors” should be a “goal of highest priority” hadn’t included alcohol on its list of taboos.

“We’re not prohibitionists,” said resident Mark Ostrom.

Judging from what I heard at the meeting, I think it’s fair to say that not all of the town’s five Selectboard members are ready to embrace the proposed ordinance.

“To be frank, alcohol has a more profound effect on our society than marijuana does,” said Selectman John Arrison.

Fortunately, America’s pot paranoia seems on the wane. Colorado and Washington have legalized recreational marijuana use. Vermont is among more than a dozen states that have decriminalized possession of small amounts. New Hampshire is the only New England state yet to figure out that pursuing recreational pot smokers is a waste of police time and taxpayer money.

In Vermont, the law requires buyers of paraphernalia that can be used to smoke marijuana to be at least 18. Melanie Sheehan, a Weathersfield resident and director of community health outreach at Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center, told me that’s not good enough. Underage children are still going into The Magic Mushroom with their parents, she said. “We do not want this kind of business in town,” Sheehan said.

Even if the Weathersfield Selectboard goes along with the ban, The Magic Mushroom would be safe under the state’s grandfather clause, although the ban could go into effect if the store changed hands.

Leanna LeBarron, who grew up in Weathersfield, started The Magic Mushroom with her husband. “I’m sorry that some people are so against us,” she said. “We pay taxes, we have six employees, we sell jewelry that is made by local (artisans). We’re not out to bother anybody.”

Shortly after I arrived at the store the other day, a sporty BMW hatchback pulled into the parking lot. A young man and woman hopped out. Fifteen minutes later, they left the store with a bong that the woman had bought.

Both were 21-year-old Dartmouth students. The young woman thought it best not to give me her name. “My mom probably wouldn’t approve,” she said.

Approve and forbid.

There’s a big difference.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.