NEWBURYPORT — City councilors will hear public testimony and hold a discussion Monday night on the possibility of a ballot question that could lead to the prohibition of retail marijuana shops in Newburyport.
The meeting, hosted by the City Council Planning and Development Committee and Committee of the Whole, will be held in City Hall Auditorium from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
The hearing will focus on an ordinance filed by Ward 5 City Councilor Larry Giunta to create a special election ballot question that allows residents to vote either for or against the prohibition of the retail sale or consumption of marijuana at any business location in the city. The ordinance would not apply to medical marijuana dispensaries.
The City Council previously had the option of creating a ballot question during a moratorium on pot shops that was adopted earlier this year, but councilors never considered doing so because residents showed little interest.
But since the City Council voted to allow marijuana retail shops near the Route 1 traffic circle and on portions of Storey Avenue, dozens of residents have come forward to object to allowing pot shops and have repeatedly asked councilors for a ballot referendum. In response to the anti-pot shop movement, a group of residents also recently began to come forward in support of allowing marijuana retail sales.
City resident Lynn Schow is among those leading the charge for a pot shop ballot question, and has helped to create a petition for a referendum that she said has garnered more than 1,100 signatures from residents. In an email to The Daily News, she highlighted that various other Massachusetts communities have held special elections on the matter.
“Our group and over a thousand Newburyport residents who signed our petition are simply asking the council and mayor to include the question on a special election ballot that the mayor has already proposed,” she said in the email. “We believe that it is simply good government to allow the residents of Newburyport to vote on this issue. “
Councilor At-large Afroz Khan noted that while many residents have previously focused on their views of marijuana, she said she hopes that during Monday’s meeting, people on both sides of the argument will express their opinions on the potential ballot question.
“It’s really important for the council to hear salient arguments about why we should ban this from our city, rather than the pros and cons of the product,” said Khan.
Khan said she feels the issue has been a divisive one for the community, and expressed concern with the nature of some of the “fear mongering” arguments that have been forward by anti-pot shop residents.
“While people think that banning marijuana is critical for our city, the many that don’t believe that are kind of the silent majority and that worries me,” said Khan. “There is a lot that’s unknown about marijuana retail, but I’m worried that policies could be made based on fear.”
In addition, Khan said she worries that the predictably lower turnout of a special election would not represent the opinions of city voters as accurately as the 2016 presidential election, which drew about 83 percent of Newburyport’s registered voters, according to City Clerk Richard Jones.
Jones said that a special election held next spring would cost the city about $12,000, and noted that the city’s most recent special election, held in 2014 on funding bonds for new a baseball field, drew 10 percent of the city’s registered voters.
Jones also said that the city may also have the option of putting the referendum on the November 2019 ballot, which would have a minimal cost and would likely yield a much larger turnout, though he said the voter count will probably be “less than robust because there is no mayor’s race.”
Staff writer Jack Shea covers Newburyport City Hall. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 978-961-3154. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.