PEABODY — Residents are starting to speak up about the mayor's campaign to ban recreational pot.
"There are strong feelings on both sides of this issue and there will be plenty more opportunities for residents to speak in favor or against as the process moves forward," City Councilor Anne Manning-Martin said Monday.
Attorney Tristan Brown was one of about 40 people who attended the City Council Legal Affairs Committee meeting Thursday, at which Mayor Ted Bettencourt urged the council, once again, to ban recreational marijuana in the city.
"I'm concerned by the tenor this argument has taken. I'm really flabbergasted with the arguments that have been leveled in support of this proposal," Brown said. "These arguments are plainly irrational — they're hyperbolic. They're based on a lot of fears but not a lot of facts."
Brown was referencing Bettencourt's remarks at the start of the meeting, in which the mayor related what he believes are the dangers that recreational marijuana poses for youth in the city. Though the committee meeting was scheduled to last 30 minutes and doesn't require public comment, discussion went on for more than an hour.
"In the midst of an opioid epidemic that has destroyed countless lives and with the dangers young people already face online and in a troubled world, what message are we sending to the most impressionable members of our community — our children," Bettencourt said. "This is a defining moment for Peabody. What type of city do we want to be?"
Brown, who has two school-age children and two more who will soon enroll, offered an answer.
"Folks who seem to think that this is going to change our community have a very dim view of how strong we are as a community," he said. "They think that somehow one or two recreational marijuana facilities is going to be the end of our quaint community. I beg to differ."
Describing Peabody residents as strong, scrappy and working-class fighters, Brown pointed to the two strip clubs on Route 1 and the city's 60 liquor licenses, adding that the city recently sought and received 20 additional liquor licenses by special legislation.
"We have a thriving adult entertainment industry," he said. "And somehow we are led to believe that one or two recreational marijuana facilities is going to be the straw that breaks the camel's back. It is nonsense."
After months of talks, the council voted last November on a proposed ban for recreational marijuana in Peabody. But councilors were divided on the issue and the ban failed to pass on a 7-3 vote (eight votes are needed for zoning changes). Manning-Martin was absent that night, while councilors Joel Saslaw, Jon Turco and Barry Sinewitz opposed the ban.
A temporary prohibition on the sale of recreational pot, passed by the council, is in place until Dec. 31.
Interim Superintendent Dr. Herb Levine spoke in favor of the ban.
"My son graduated Peabody High School as an opioid addict," he said. "He began with marijuana."
Though Levine acknowledged that not everyone who smokes marijuana becomes an opioid addict, he said that every addict he has known in his 49-year career began with marijuana.
"Some people see recreational marijuana shops as a gift horse, I see it as a Trojan horse. I am here to tell you that it's the wrong message to send to kids," he said. "I am dead set against it and I hope that you will vote that way."
Kathy Hartney, a registered nurse, has worked in the intensive care unit for 17 years and lived in Peabody for 30 years. She has seen many opioid overdoses, she said, but in her entire career has only seen a couple who tested positive for marijuana. Furthermore, she said, research shows that marijuana is a good exit drug for opioid addicts.
"I also believe that having a retail establishment in this community could benefit it greatly," she said, referencing the added revenue. "I think that having a retail establishment — I don't believe that it would cause chaos."
City Councilor Tom Gould related his own experience with marijuana and alcohol addiction. He has been sober for 27 years now, had his first drink at 14 and smoked weed at 16 years old. He largely credited his wife with his sobriety.
"I flunked out of three colleges because all I cared about was getting high and drinking," he said. "It's pretty emotional here to talk about it and I don't want it to be about me but I want it to be about what a compulsive, addictive person such as myself encountered by smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol."
For that reason, Gould said he will vote for the ban on recreational pot.
City Councilor Joel Saslaw says he has concerns about banning recreational marijuana and the financial impact it would have on the city. He pointed out that even if retail sales are banned, residents could purchase pot in neighboring cities, such as Salem and Lynn, and Peabody would lose out on the local 3 percent sales taxes generated from pot shops.
The councilor, who has two children, added that it's his job to teach his children about ethics and morals and he will continue to have conversations with them about misuse of drugs and alcohol.
"It's very difficult to come out and speak in favor of something that still has a stigma," he said. "I don't believe it's a gateway drug."
Saslaw also noted that the legal circumstances around retail pot have changed since residents voted a year and a half ago on the initial state ballot question, when marijuana was illegal, to legalize it. The question passed statewide, but Peabody voted against it, 14,980 to 12,780 residents in favor.
"It's here. The toothpaste is out of the tube. It's not going back in," he said. "Let's zone it, let's control it and let's regulate it."
Mary Markos may be contacted at 978-338-2660 or email@example.com.