NEWBURYPORT – With only days to go before residents vote on whether to allow retail marijuana shops within city limits, most councilor at-large candidates recently declared which side of the debate they were on.
Candidates on the ballot are incumbent at-large Councilors Barry Connell, Joe Devlin, Afroz Khan and Bruce Vogel, and challengers Robert Germinara, Paul O’Brien and Charles Tontar. Tontar is the current Ward 4 councilor but running for one of the five at-large seats up for grabs.
A “yes” vote on Nov. 5, would ban retail marijuana stores in the community. A “no” vote on the ballot question would be in favor of allowing retail marijuana stores in specific business zones.
On Tuesday, The Daily News emailed candidates asking where they stood on the issue and how they would vote.
Vogel, Tontar and Khan said they would vote against the ban while Germinara and Connell said they would vote “yes.”
Devlin declined to answer, saying in an email: “I don’t think it is proper for a city councilor to ‘pick a side.’ That’s not our job. That’s the problem with this issue. I support the residents.”
Earlier this week, Paul O’Brien announced on Facebook he supported efforts to ban retail pot shops from the city, a view shared by Opt Out Newburyport. Newburyport CAN, a pro-pot shop group, is hoping residents vote against the ballot question, which would mean up to two retail shops could open.
In December, the City Council voted 6 to 4 in favor (with one abstention) of adopting an ordinance sponsored by Ward 5’s Larry Giunta and Ward 6 Councilor Thomas O’Brien’s allowing for the ballot question. Both Giunta and O’Brien are stepping down as councilors.
Those who voted in favor of the ballot question were Giunta, Thomas O’Brien, Heather Shand, Sharif Zeid, Jared Eigerman and Devlin. Khan, Greg Earls, Vogel and Connell voted against, while Tontar abstained. Earls resigned from the council after moving out of the city.
Connell said, in an emailed statement, there were strong arguments on both sides.
“By opening the city to retail sales we will gain revenue for such things as hiring teachers, repairing streets, and building a new west end fire station. Such revenue will otherwise go to neighboring communities that are opening retail outlets. Local sales will also deprive organized crime of some revenue they make from illegal sales, while ensuring that adult users do not risk ingesting cannabis that has been contaminated by other drugs,” Connell wrote.
“I personally voted against the first ballot question, however, because I don’t think our society needs more intoxication than we already have, and local government should not enable more consumption of potentially harmful drugs. To be consistent with my previous position I will vote ‘yes’ on Tuesday’s ballot question,” Connell added, meaning he favored a ban on retail sales of marijuana for adult use.
Vogel has been one of the most vocal supporters of retail marijuana sales. In a phone interview he said his position has been consistent and clear from day one.
“I think that what’s being put out the by the Opt Out people is not always accurate and is misfocused. They talk about saving the children as the root reason that they don’t want retail sales,” Vogel said. “The whole idea of legalizing pot was getting it off the black market and the black market is available to everybody.”
Vogel said the state’s Cannabis Control Commission wants to eliminate the black market and regulate and tax marijuana in the same way the state regulates alcohol.
“You can’t tell me these Opt Out people don’t drink alcohol,” Vogel said.
Tontar also pointed to abolishing the black market as a reason he intends to vote “no” on the ballot question.
“I understand the fear that parents of young children experience in the face of all the intoxicants tempting them. I also don’t think that the existence or non-existence of a pot shop in Newburyport will alter their children’s exposure to cannabis to any significant degree,” he said.
“The black market for marijuana has developed over 40 years and is well established. The one pro ‘yes’ argument I find compelling is that the existence of a shop telegraphs to children that it’s OK to model adult behavior and do drugs. On the other hand, that cat is out of the bag. It’s legal in Massachusetts and sold in neighboring communities. I think the key to protecting our children is to support and bolster Newburyport Youth Service programs so our children have the assets to avoid negative behavior when exposed to it,” Tontar wrote in an email.
In a separate phone interview, Tontar added that if the ballot question passes it does not mean the City Council is legally obligated to abolish the two retail marijuana zones.
“No one seems to be aware of that,” Tontar said.
While Tontar didn’t connect the dots, his statement could provide the impetus for pro-retail marijuana shop residents to petition for another ballot question.
In a phone interview, Germinara made it clear he was against retail marijuana shops and said he’d vote in favor of the ballot question.
“I do not want to have it, I am going to vote ‘yes,’ especially now that they (the city) tried to micromanage the whole process and put it in specific areas,” Germinara said.
He said that while he understands why Salisbury and Amesbury have embraced retail marijuana to reap tax dollars, Newburyport is in a different financial situation.
“The ship has already sailed on this, as far as I am concerned, the city of Newburyport does not need marijuana shops to survive,” Germinara said.
Khan, in an email, said she voted against legalizing marijuana statewide back in 2016 but said she would be voting for allowing retail marijuana shops.
“While I understand both sides of the issue, and was myself initially reserved about allowing retail marijuana, I have spent the last year listening to community feedback and deeply researching how a regulated retail market works. My turning point came after I organized a community forum on retail marijuana in June 2018. It was there that I realized that my role as an at-large city councilor is to work on behalf of all residents. No matter the outcome of this ballot question, that continues to be my priority,” Khan wrote in an email.
Others weigh in
The Daily News posed the same question to all candidates running for City Council, most of them running unopposed. The only contested race other than councilor at-large is in Ward 6 where Sarah Hall, of Arthur Welch Drive, and Byron Lane of Hart Road are on the ballot.
Hall, Ward 3 Councilor Heather Shand and Ward 2 Councilor Jared Eigerman responded to the question in time for this report.
Hall, in an email, said she would be voting “no” on the retail marijuana ban.
“As an educator and as a parent of two teenagers, I favor regulation and education as the most effective means to curb underage use. Our country learned some hard lessons from the prohibition of alcohol. Although it will take time, eliminating the black market is best for public health and public safety,” Hall wrote.
Shand also said she would vote against the ban and added that she voted in favor of the ballot question because residents were concerned with the zoning process.
“This election gives folks to make the final decision whether they truly want retail marijuana shops in our community,” Shand said.
In an emailed statement, Eigerman pointed out that he sponsored the city’s current retail marijuana zoning law.
“However, only the voters can decide on a ban. Question 4, passed statewide in 2016, left to each city and town -- regardless of how its residents voted on Question 4 -- the right to “ban” any type of marijuana business. The “Yes on Question 4” campaign’s official ballot argument explained: “Local cities and towns can … ban marijuana businesses…” Under state law, only a city’s voters, not the city council, may adopt an ordinance to ban marijuana shops. I will vote my conscience as a private citizen, but I have no say as a councilor,’ Eigerman wrote.