By Allison Margolin with Erin Williams
Last week, I travelled to Brewster, Massachusetts, a small town on Cape Cod, to speak to the city planning board about a client’s proposed cannabis cultivation license. The client’s proposal was the first of its kind in Brewster. Since Massachusetts legalized cannabis in 2016, so far there are only three recreational dispensaries in the whole state, with more expected to open in the coming months. Nearly 80 towns have issued bans and about 90 others have moratoriums. In other words, the change has been slow.
During this meeting with the planning board, I quickly realized the city seemed open to the plan, but had some basic questions on what a grow and potential retail location would mean for their small community. A few board members voiced their concerns on the effects of cultivation on groundwater and the energy costs, the town traffic (a key issue for an area with two lane highways), and potential increases in crime in the area.
Personally, I found these questions very encouraging. When Raza and I first started our practice almost a decade ago, the stigma against marijuana use was high, especially outside of California. Now that 33 states and the District of Columbia have legalized either recreational or medical cannabis, public opinion has shifted, too. None of the questions I heard in this meeting were about the morality of using cannabis. Instead, they were all practical concerns on the industry’s impact on the environment and town safety. Here I will try to address these broad concerns.
Impact on Environment
Obviously, this will vary with each site proposal, but what I can guarantee is that a regulated cannabis market will take the necessary precautions in meeting each state and city’s guidelines than the illegal cannabis market.
One environmental concern is water use. Cannabis plants are a thirsty bunch, which poses more of a problem for desert climates like Southern California than places like Cape Cod. Still, it is far better to have a regulated cannabis grow in your town than an illegal grow, which might divert water or disrupt irrigation.
Another issue is the potential clearing of forests and the effects on soil as well as the potential for pollution through the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Many in the industry are combatting this issue by using plant nutrients and fertilizers with a low environmental impact.
There is also the issue of energy usage. Colder climates like Massachusetts’ Cape will almost always use indoor cultivation, which will require a lot of electricity. There are ways to offset these energy costs by using solar panels, LED grow lights, etc. The more that area has renewable energy options, the better things will go for the city.
In short, there will be environmental costs, but it will not be any more harmful than say, driving an SUV or eating too much factory-farmed meat.
Impact on Crime Rates
Although I did not get any questions on the potential for crime – probably because Brewster is one of the safest cities in the region – this is another common question for places new to legal cannabis. Will legal weed will make your town more dangerous?
In the 5 years since Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational cannabis, there has been a decrease in violent crime for both states and a decrease in youth use of marijuana. The legal market also led to an economic boom in these states. The negative result is that there is an increase in impaired driving and traffic accidents.
Ultimately, as long as there is federal prohibition, the cannabis industry will be inherently riskier than other industries. Still, the evidence shows that legal cannabis is safer than the unregulated black market, not only for cities and states but for individual consumers which requires product testing.
Although I never got the chance to dive into this subject at the planning board meeting, there is evidence showing that places with legal cannabis are not being hit as hard by the nationwide opiate crisis. After 14 years of steady increases in opioid-related deaths in Colorado, there was a 6.5% reduction in 2014. This result is consistent across other places with legal cannabis, whether medical or recreational.
Cape Cod, a vacation area that sees little business for nine months of the year, has been deeply impacted by the opioid epidemic. A 2018 report in the Cape Cod Times showed rescuers responded to 15% more overdose calls on the Cape in 2017 than they had in 2016. The expanded use of the opioid overdose reversing drug Narcan saved a lot of lives. Even as the rest of the state saw a decrease in opioid-related deaths for the first time in 6 years in 2017, the problems facing the Cape remain. The community is aging and the lack of opportunities have driven its youth to the major cities inland like Boston. The research implies that the medical benefits of marijuana, as well as the economic opportunities that marijuana businesses provide, would only support the Cape’s community.
I believe there will always be some potential for risk when introducing a new industry to a community, especially when that industry is centered on a federally illegal substance. However, I think the rewards far outweigh the risks.