EAST HADDAM – The countless and complex layers of issues and emotions surrounding the legalization of marijuana in Connecticut were on full display on Wednesday night as more than two dozen residents aired their views at a public hearing called to gauge opinion on whether the town should outright prohibit it from any commercial use in town.
Heartfelt stories were told of marijuana’s wonderful medical benefits, and its corrosive role in teenagers’ mental health and the death of a young man killed by a driver high on marijuana and an assortment of other substances.
Some said a proposed marijuana shop in town that was denied last week by the zoning commission would be great for badly-needed tax revenue that will inevitably be gained by a neighboring town if a ban is passed.
Others said the shop not only would create a traffic headache, but would simply be contrary to the town’s character and send the wrong message to its young people and those thinking of moving here.
Each speaker, ranging from their 20s to their 90s, finished their piece at Town Hall to applause that seemed evenly supportive for both sides.
On this night at least, the two-hour debate was clearly a draw.
“It seemed pretty even – fifty-fifty-ish,” said First Selectman Irene Haines, who presided over the hearing to get opinions on a prohibition ordinance she proposed at a meeting two weeks ago and is likely headed for a public vote by referendum.
She opened the hearing by reading the proposed ordinance, which would ban “…all cannabis establishments, producers, dispensary facilities, cultivators, micro-cultivators, retailers, hybrid retailers, food and beverage manufacturers, product manufacturers, product packagers, delivery services or transporters, or any other types of licensed cannabis-related businesses or the conducting of any such activity for commercial purposes by whichever name used is and shall be prohibited within the Town of East Haddam.”
The first speaker was Robert Casner, a local developer and chair of the town’s economic development commission, who applied to open a small retail marijuana shop in a 382 Town Street building he owns that now houses a package store and an architect’s office.
“None of the dozens of studies we reviewed showed that the opening of a retail cannabis store in a community leads to increased use of marijuana by teenagers,” or to harder drugs or violence, he said.
The zoning commission last week said Casner’s application – filed last fall just before a town moratorium on such shops was enacted – was incomplete because it did not include a traffic study on the impact the shop would have at the relatively busy intersection of Routes 82 and 151 just feet away.
Casner ended his remarks by saying his decision whether to appeal the denial would be influenced by what he heard at Wednesday’s meeting.
“It’s going to depend a lot on what the community tells me,” he said, noting that he saw overwhelming support in more than 300 social-media postings reacting to a story in CT Examiner on the rejection of his planned shop. “If they want it or don’t want it is going to have a big effect on my decision.”
Thursday, Casner said that while he was pleased with the hearing’s attendance and “constructive and civil discussion,” he had not yet determined his future course.
“Right now, I’m doing the groundwork to acquire the information that the Planning and Zoning Commission feels is necessary to complete my application,” he said. “I haven’t made a final decision about whether to reapply.”
Next up was Mark Thiede, owner of Wrasslin’ Cats and perhaps the most public voice yet against the shop and marijuana itself – especially for what he asserts is its negative impact on young people.
He said the town needs to look beyond “making a buck and all,” and instead make a statement with a total commercial ban.
“They can go elsewhere,” he said of potential customers of the shop. “It’s not that we’re talking about accessibility – it’s just about our community.”
Most of the speakers that followed aired similar themes to the first two.
“I think it comes down to choice,” Patrick Miett said. “I’m of the mind that we leave it up to people’s individual responsibility and parents instilling values in their kids and not assuming your kid’s behavior is going to be based on a store that is or isn’t there. I just think the train has left the station on this issue – it’s going to be everywhere.”
“You can always go somewhere else where they think it’s a wonderful thing to have sex-toy stores, drugs, casinos, tattoo parlors – just line ‘em all up, who cares it’s all legal,” said Shirley Caron. “There’s so many things wrong here.”
“This is the epitome of political hypocrisy and unnecessary and arbitrary regulation,” said
Robert Saraco, aiming his comments at Haines’ outspoken support for the town’s businesses but opposition to a marijuana shop or other commercial possibilities. “What if it was you that wanted to engage in a perfectly legal activity in town but you couldn’t do it because other people in town didn’t like it and they put it to a vote to stop it?”
“People have no trouble getting this drug or cannabis or whatever the hell you want to call it,” said Dick Everett, 92, who has lived in town since 1956. “But I don’t think it’s going to do the town one scrap of good to have it in town.”
Haines said the Board of Selectmen will discuss the public hearing at its next meeting on Feb 16.
“We will determine the next step there,” she said Thursday. “I imagine we would go to a referendum, but I can’t say that until the Board of Selectmen votes on that. I think this is an important issue and the statute outlines that towns can decide. Therefore, I feel we should provide the town the opportunity to vote.”