Petition drive for cannabis referendum in Southington restarts after signatures thrown out

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SOUTHINGTON – Confusion over petition language means that more than 1,000 signatures gathered from voters hoping for a town referendum on recreational marijuana will have to be resigned or thrown out.

The state law legalizing recreational marijuana allows for a referendum on whether towns and cities will permit cannabis sales. That referendum requires a petition signed by at least 10 percent of a town’s electorate, in Southington’s case nearly 3,200 people.

Advocates of a referendum have been gathering signatures in past days. They’d included the three referendum questions allowed by the state statute on the petition.

Stacey Dolan, an administrator in the Southington Talks Facebook group, is heading the drive to gather signatures. She’d included all three questions based on a response from Town Attorney Jeremy Taylor on petition language.

Taylor said he’d included all three questions from the state statute in an email to Dolan as information and not as legal advice on how to write the petition. He later saw all three questions were on the petition, which would mean all three questions would have to appear on November’s referendum ballot, and contacted Dolan.

The questions include: shall the sale of recreational marijuana be allowed, shall the sale be allowed under specified licenses or shall it be prohibited.

Dolan was frustrated that the signatures already gathered would have to be discarded or resigned but thought including all three questions could be confusing to voters or even lead to a situation where conflicting questions passed. She chose to rewrite the petition to only include the first question, where a “yes” is a vote in favor of allowing recreational marijuana sales in town.

The confusion over petition language means redoing hours of canvassing.

“I have to go back and get their signatures all over again,” Dolan said.

She had a petition drive at the Southington Drive-In last week and has another one scheduled for Thursday. Dolan said she also did door-to-door canvassing this week to gather names.

The only means for a town referendum on the topic is through voter petitions, Taylor said, since state law doesn’t allow for any other means such as a Town Council vote.

Opposition to marijuana from planners

State law does allow the council to prohibit marijuana sales as well as to regulate cannabis dispensaries in town. The council hasn’t taken action on the matter but did refer the question to the Planning and Zoning Commission.

In an informal vote Tuesday, six of the seven commission members said they were in favor of a ban on marijuana sales in town. All were in favor of a moratorium on sales until they could come up with regulations. While sales can’t happen until next year, commissioners said they wanted to get ahead of the issue.

Bob Salka, commission vice chairman and a Republican, said he didn’t want a repeat of when VIP proposed opening an adult shop on Queen Street. Since the commission didn’t have regulations prohibiting it, they allowed the shop to open.

“I don’t want the same thing to happen that happened to VIP,” he said. “I think we need to move fairly quickly before an application comes before us.”

Christina Volpe, a commission Democrat, wasn’t in favor of a ban on recreational marijuana sales but did think they should be regulated “just as a liquor store.” She said people had a misconception of dispensaries.

“The worst that can happen is we might need another lane in the drive through in the McDonalds,” Volpe said. “Either way drugs, come into our town. I’d rather be responsible and have regulations where they may be and where they may be consumed.”

Referendum versus regulation

A decision by voters in November would trump any ban enacted by the Planning and Zoning Commission. Bob Hammersley, commission chairman, said he didn’t believe the commission should wait until then to start planning.

He called for Tuesday’s informal vote to allow town planning staff to start drafting language for a commission vote as soon as August.

“I have no intention of waiting around until November before we make a decision about what we want to do,” Hammersley said, saying the commission had a “prerogative and responsibility” to act. “We regulate businesses all the time.”

Dolan said the commission’s opposition to marijuana sales has boosted the efforts of her group and drawn more volunteers.

“What happened last night helps our cause,” she said Wednesday.

STEPS concern

The Southington Town Wide Effort to Promote Success works on drug and substance abuse prevention among youth. Megan Albanese, youth prevention coordinator, said surveys of local students show young people view marijuana as less and less harmful. Those trends are furthered by legalization in Connecticut and neighboring states.

“We know it’s harmful to the developing brain aged 25 and under,” Albanese said. “This is now sending a mixed message.”

Allowing recreational marijuana could mean kids have more access to it, she said. Her group has worked on reducing local kids’ access to alcohol and prescription pills in town and Albanese said recreational marijuana might require a similar campaign.
Twitter: @JBuchananRJ


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