Councilors, City Solicitor Reject Bevilacqua’s Dire Predictions as ‘Reefer Madness’

Haverhill City Councilor Melinda E. Barrett. (File photograph.)

The City Council on Tuesday enacted a temporary moratorium on the sale of recreational marijuana, buying time to decide whether to designate zones for licensed establishments or to pursue a ballot question asking voters to ban them.

City Solicitor William D. Cox Jr. said the state Cannabis Control Commission is expected to finalize rules this spring governing the sale of marijuana and related products.

Once the regulations come out, the council has to be prepared.

“The idea of a moratorium is to give cities time to act, and then to act,” Cox said. “These moratoriums aren’t anything you can do on a permanent basis.”

Haverhill City Councilor Joseph J. Bevilacqua.

A skeptical Councilor Joseph J. Bevilacqua predicted the city will have little control over how and where marijuana will be sold in Haverhill.

“It will be on every street corner in the city,” Bevilacqua said. “The state’s goal is that this is going to be available in any kind of retail establishment in the city and you’re not going to be able to control it.”

Councilor Melinda E. Barrett and Vice President Thomas J. Sullivan warned against a hysterical response.

“We don’t have to succumb to reefer madness,” Barrett said.

“That’s an alarming statement that is just not true,” Sullivan responded to Bevilacqua. “This reminds me of when we had to establish adult entertainment zones, back in the old days.”

Cox joined the councilors in challenging Bevilacqua’s claims.

“It’s not going to be on every street corner of the city, that’s for sure,” Cox said. “As we go forward, the city does have ways to regulate what happens, and one of those is through zoning.”

The zones would have to be large or numerous enough to accommodate the number of licensed establishments the city would have to approve. According to the Cannabis Control Commission’s draft ordinances, a community has to approve recreational marijuana licenses equal to 20 percent of the number of its all-alcohol licenses.

Haverhill has 25 all-alcohol licenses, so it would have to grant five licenses for marijuana sales.

If the council decides it doesn’t want recreational marijuana to be sold in the city, it will have to persuade voters to approve a ban. A statewide ballot question in 2016 resulted in approval. Communities where the “yes” votes prevailed must grant permits unless a subsequent vote rescinds approval.

Cox said the city could put the question on a regular election ballot or call for a special election.

Councilor Colin F. LePage, chairman of the Administration and Finance Subcommittee, said the issue is already on his panel’s agenda. The committee will bring proposals to the council once the state’s draft regulations are issued.

Also on Tuesday, councilors gave the mayor approval to enter into a host city agreement with Alternative Therapies Group to operate a medical marijuana dispensary.

At the suggestion of LePage, the council amended the agreement to require the company to pay 2.5 percent of its gross proceeds if allowed to operate only five days a week, an increase from 2 percent to match an agreement between ATG and the town of Salisbury. If allowed to operate seven days a week, the company would pay the city 3 percent of its gross proceeds.