Hartford sends retail cannabis opt-in to Town Meeting ballot

  • Dry cannabis flowers inside the packaging room at the Aphria (owned by Tilray) facility in Leamington, Ontario, Canada, on Jan. 13, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Annie Sakkab Annie Sakkab

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/13/2022 7:20:01 AM
Modified: 1/13/2022 7:19:08 AM

HARTFORD — Voters in Hartford will be asked to decide in March whether to allow retail sales of cannabis to adults age 21 and older for recreational use.

At its Tuesday night meeting, which was held in person at Town Hall and online, the Hartford Selectboard voted unanimously to send the question to voters on Town Meeting Day, March 1.

The vote came a day after an information meeting at Hartford High School and online that largely focused on the issue.

Many who spoke on Monday said they supported the idea of a retailer setting up shop in Hartford, in part to serve patients who qualify for medical use but have trouble getting marijuana through the nearest Vermont dispensary, which is in Montpelier. But some working in the field of substance use prevention and who are in recovery themselves said they worried that allowing such a shop in Hartford could increase access to the drug for young people.

“Having this service here in the town would be deeply appreciated, particularly by medical-needs people,” Hartford resident Mike Morris said during Monday’s meeting.

Morris said he served as a caregiver for his daughter before she died of a cancer a few years ago. He made regular trips to Montpelier on her behalf to get marijuana to help alleviate some of her discomfort.

“Edibles particularly made her short life with cancer a lot more comfortable,” he said.

But Emily Musty Zanleoni, executive director of the Hartford Community Coalition, urged the Selectboard and members of the public to think about the implications on public health of allowing retail cannabis sales in Hartford.

“There’s societal enthusiasm,” Zanleoni said at Monday’s meeting. “Those of us who work in public health … we have lots of concerns.”

For example, Zanleoni said she is worried about the high levels of THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis, in some products now.

The board was not universally supportive. Board member Lannie Collins signaled on Tuesday that his support for putting the question on the ballot should not be seen as support for retail cannabis.

“I am personally opposed to the idea,” he said.

The question of retail cannabis for adults comes to Hartford voters after the Vermont Legislature passed a bill, SB 54, in October 2020 to allow such sales in the state. The law allows municipalities to opt in to permit pot shops in their borders. The state’s current medical marijuana dispensaries will be allowed to open for recreational sales beginning in May, while new retailers won’t be able to open until October.

Windsor, Strafford, Randolph, Burlington and Brattleboro are among the couple dozen Vermont communities that have already approved retail sales within their borders.

The recent discussions in Hartford come following a town hall discussion on the topic last month.

Much of the discussion at Monday’s meeting focused on whether and how Hartford might benefit economically from welcoming such businesses to the community.

Vermont is set to tax the sales of cannabis with a 14% excise tax and 6% sales tax, Hartford Town Manager Tracy Yarlott-Davis said at Monday’s meeting. Of those revenues, 30% is set to go to after-school programs and the remaining 70% to the state’s general fund.

Hartford resident Jonathan Rugg pointed to Hartford’s location at the intersection of two interstates and on the way to tourist areas such as Woodstock and Killington.

“Someone stands to make a lot of money,” Rugg said during Monday’s meeting. “Hartford should be able to capture some of that windfall.”

Because Hartford doesn’t have a local sales tax, at this point it doesn’t have a way to collect revenue from cannabis sales, Selectboard member Mike Hoyt said. That might change if the Legislature allows it, he said.

Hartford resident Joe Trottier said he felt the focus on the economic side of the issue was misplaced.

“People’s lives are changed; ruined and lost because of recreational marijuana,” said Trottier, who noted that he is in recovery from addiction to alcohol and drugs.

Others in the audience disputed the idea that marijuana use leads to use of other drugs. Among them was Enfield resident Gil Fanciullo, an emeritus professor of anesthesiology at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. He said at Monday’s meeting that marijuana is not a gateway drug. Though people who use marijuana may develop addictions to other substances, he said that is an example of correlation, not causation.

Fanciullo, who’s been involved with medical marijuana dispensaries in New Hampshire, also noted that products with higher levels of THC are taken in smaller doses and that young people in Hartford who want to find marijuana today can

He disputed the idea that opening a retail store would increase access for young people.

There’s “no kid in this town that can’t get marijuana if they want it,” he said.

In talking with Hartford police and fire departments, Yarlott-Davis said it wasn’t clear whether or what effect allowing a retail cannabis business might mean for public safety. Public safety officials “aren’t necessarily going to code a call as cannabis-related,” she said. In the communities that have allowed retail cannabis sales, she said there is “not a good comparison for Hartford.”

Hartford voters can expect to see the question on their ballots on Tuesday, March 1. Voting will take place in the Hartford High School gymnasium from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Voters also can vote early by mail.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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