The Straight Dope (Opinion Column)

Get ready, Amherst  – we are now on track to have 8 recreational marijuana shops!  (As a friend of mine noted the other day, we’ve got just ONE bookstore downtown these days.) But whatever. Once we get hold of a few joints and/or pot-infused brownies, we might feel a little better about this decision, and about a whole bunch of things – er, right?

Last night, Town Meeting passed a bylaw proposed by the Select Board, imposing eight as a cap on recreational marijuana shops which would otherwise be unlimited, now that marijuana is legal in Massachusetts. Amid some doubts, a few giggles, defenses of free commerce, and claims about the “health benefits” of recreational marijuana,  the measure passed with 98 Yes votes, 57 No, and seven abstentions.  Four of the shops will launch as already-registered medical marijuana treatment centers, which the Select Board said are expected to broaden their scope to retail sales. Those four centers will be at 85 and 55 University Drive; at 422 Amity St; and 169 Meadow Street. It is unknown where the four purely recreational marijuana shops will locate, although the zoning bylaw will prevent them from being within 300 feet (roughly the length of a football field) from a school or daycare.

A bylaw will prohibit use and ingestion of marijuana and related products in public, but Police Chief Scott Livingstone told Town Meeting he is not sure how the department will enforce regulation of marijuana-infused edibles.  Officers won’t be stopping people to say, “What’s in the brownie?'” he said, to more giggles from the crowd.  Although Town Meeting members said the bylaw should be limited to public smoking of marijuana, no such motion to amend was offered, and a motion to refer the bylaw back to the Select Board for revisions failed.

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Following bylaws approved last night, the town will receive a 3% tax on retail marijuana sales. The volume of marijuana to be sold in Amherst is unknown, and whether those sales will yield tax dollars in the thousands or millions is a big question mark. (Might it be enough, however, to fund a standing town-sponsored education program, to help make people aware of the effect marijuana use might have on their driving ability, memory, lung capacity, long-term mental health, etc?)

Last night, I was one of the “No” votes on the eight recreational marijuana outlets – believing that a limit is necessary and eight is just too many for this town.

We open our arms each fall to nearly 30,000 college students, attending UMass, Amherst College, and Hampshire College, (while Mt. Holyoke is just down the road a piece and Smith College is a fairly short hop over the bridge.)  These college kids are, for the most part, really great (except for their already harum-scarum driving and tendency to whack a person inadvertently with their backpacks at the supermarket.)  UMass is a go-to place for students who in the past would have attended the best private institutions, which are now financially beyond reach.  I don’t mean to get corny, but some of these kids grabbing a slice of pizza downtown might help to one day steer our world, in politics, science, business, literature, art and other realms.

I have no gripe with medical marijuana, and believe it should be readily available (it is already being dispensed in Northampton) and will benefit many people now suffering chronic pain, or coping with the side effects of cancer treatment.

I made my view on the recreational shops known last night on the Town Meeting floor, with all the stress of having the 200-odd members present gaping at me as I tried to work the microphone. Here is that statement:

Our primary business here in the Town of Amherst is that of the university and colleges, whose shared mission is guidance of students, many of them young, in rigorous academic achievement, much of it scientific.

Given that heavy recreational marijuana use can and sometimes does lead to apathy, impaired memory and cognition, and may also contribute to major mental illness in young users; and that inhalation of marijuana may cause respiratory damage, allowing several recreational marijuana shops in town runs counter to the welfare, business, and goals of our unique, high-aiming community.

It has taken UMass decades to lift its prior reputation as a party school, and I am old enough to remember when it was known as “Zoomass.” We continue to struggle with management of alcohol consumption and periodic heroin overdoses on the campuses in Amherst, and with issues of consent and periodic sexual assaults. The addition of abundant recreational marijuana to this mix could well exacerbate existing core problems. Let’s carefully guard UMass’ hard-won current reputation as an excellent state school with some top research programs. Let’s also not let Amherst become a destination site for recreational marijuana. We want a thriving downtown, with a lively mix of stores – not a major concentration of head shops. Let’s lower the proposed cap.

Town Meeting member Janet Chevan made a motion last night to set the cap on retail shops at six. “It’s clear to me that we’re all conflicted, and need to start with fewer shops,” she said. However, others argued that towns in Colorado, where marijuana is legal, have not limited shops, and haven’t had any problems with them, although no evidence of that claim was presented.

Moderator James Pistrang said meeting rules required that the higher number proposed for Amherst, eight, had to be voted on first, and when it passed, Chevan’s motion for just six fell by the wayside.

The argument can and will be made that recreational marijuana, like liquor, will only be sold to those ages 21 and up with valid identification. And yet, we all know from experience that teenagers easily obtain booze. Older friends or siblings buy for younger ones, often eagerly. The goals of such purchases may not always be enjoyment of just one or two drinks, but to get really trashed and reduce the inhibitions of everyone present. Drunk driving and related accidents are a persistent problem. What about the likely increase in people driving high?  Studies show that marijuana’s primary psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), slows reaction times and impairs coordination.

Our state, town, and police department need to prepare for more high drivers, and decide what tests will be used to determine when someone is too impaired, and therefore dangerous, to be on the road. See a related article here, by Tracy Zafian, a UMass Transportation Center research fellow (and Town Meeting member): https://umtcresearch.wordpress.com/2017/09/20/using-advanced-science-and-technology-to-detect-marijuana-use/

I don’t mean to sound prudish or sanctimonious here, and people who’ve known me a long time might even have lit up with me in college, which I attended early as a younger teenager. For me, once the novelty and excitement of marijuana wore off, the drug led mostly to apathy. An assignment due the next day would become more remote, and the need to complete it less pressing, as the joint went ’round and the night wore on.  Over a period of months, the social pressure to spend what little money I had to help buy pot increased, as did pot-smoking simply to maintain certain friendships.

You might say that if I was susceptible to these pressures, it was due to my own weakness of character; and yet, how many teenagers and young adults are similarly weak? Unable to hit the brakes when they should?

I was fortunate in being able to recognize, after a time, how marijuana and the related  pressures were affecting me. But  I think many of us know bright people whose heavy, prolonged marijuana use seemed to lead to many lost years and curtailed ambitions.

There is also a fairly significant body of scientific research now, correlating heavy early marijuana use with later diagnoses of major mental illness, including psychosis and schizophrenia.  You may be interested to take a look at this link: https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/marijuana/there-link-between-marijuana-use-psychiatric-disorders 

In a strange kind of disconnect, people somehow consider marijuana smoking to be vastly different thing from cigarette smoking, and forget that it, too, can damage the lungs. Related information is here: http://adai.uw.edu/marijuana/factsheets/respiratoryeffects.htm

Even if some us gray-haired year-round Amherst residents nostalgically imagine ourselves having a periodic toke once marijuana is on sale, we have a responsibility to try and protect our college students. They and their families are paying dearly for the privilege of college – far more than my generation did.  A semester where the booze or pot win out is not so easily repeated.

This may sound surprising, given what else I’ve said here, but I voted for statewide marijuana decriminalization last year and think it was the right decision. As someone who spent years in the Massachusetts courthouses as a reporter, it was very clear to me that marijuana possession and distribution crimes were creating a big, time-consuming unnecessary backlog. And, that the effect of such prosecutions was to tar too many people with criminal records, which no doubt had a negative impact on their employment prospects.

But marijuana is not an innocuous vitamin, and we should not be naive about it or its effects. As Select Board member Alisa Brewer noted last night, just because Amherst voters favored decriminalization, it didn’t mean that they wanted corner-to-corner marijuana shops in town.

Brewer and Select Board member Constance Kruger said the board settled on the number eight for a number of reasons. For the town to go below 20% of the 11 off-premises liquor licenses now granted in Amherst, a ballot measure would be required under state law. The board also wanted to give marijuana vendors, besides the four already registered to operate the medical treatment centers, a chance to compete for retail licenses. Although I appreciate that we have a cap at all, I do wish we could start more slowly.

I hope it will go well, and that I will be proven to be a hand-wringing worrywart. But as we enter this era of legalized, readily-available marijuana, let’s also thoughtfully prepare, for what will no doubt be an adjustment period for this community and its young people.

 The Spectator of Amherst appreciates your comments and clarifications, and welcomes submission of well-reasoned opinion columns. This article may be updated with additional information.

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2 thoughts on “The Straight Dope (Opinion Column)

  1. First, a picayune correction: the Empire State build is about 4 times higher than 300 feet; perhaps you were thinking of the W.E.B. duBois Library? 😉

    With that said, let me relate the tragic tale of a good friend, a favorite teacher of mine, with whom I’ve kept in touch over more than 4 decades. He taught here in the Pioneer Valley for a few years after he taught me, his uncle is arguably one the most influential writers ever, and he’s the deepest-thinking person I’ve ever known. When he was young, he was considered a star in his field: winning competitions as an undergraduate, having his PhD dissertation published in the very top journals, invited to visit the world’s best research institutions, and inspiring some of most important advances ever made in our understanding of the universe. But as he grew older, it became clear that his love for cannabis was winning the battle with his love for his field: he was unable to hold faculty positions, dabbled more and more on dead-end projects, and eventually became homeless.

    I’ve never smoked, and the one time I ingested the stuff (enjoying an Extravaganja brownie offered on the Common a decade-plus back), it may have mellowed me a bit more than I already am – or at least think I am – but the resulting apathy/lethargy (to which Marla Go alludes above) persisted for over a week – thank goodness I didn’t persist with another brownie every weekend and wind up like my brilliant friend….

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    1. Thank you Anonymous for your comment. I obviously misread something on the Empire State Building’s height, and will correct the article to say that 300 feet is about the length of a football field.
      I find the story you tell here both moving and familiar, in that I have also known some very bright and talented people, who used marijuana heavily and slowly lost passion for their work. I think the kind of cumulative effect over time that we’re talking about here can be sort of insidious, in that the user may not fully realize what is happening. I am reconciled, I guess, to the idea of 8 marijuana shops in town. BUT. I am not content to let the matter “go.” I would like to see some of the tax revenue from the retail marijuana shops go to drug abuse prevention education; and to development of appealing recreational programs for teenagers and young adults.

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