METHUEN — When voters step into the voting booth on Tuesday, Nov. 2, they will be doing more than just casting ballots for mayor, City Council and School Committee members. Residents are also being asked to decide if — five years after voting down the legalization of marijuana in Methuen in 2016 — cannabis should be allowed in the community.
Voters will be asked to approve retail, cultivation and delivery of cannabis in the city.
The ballot question reads as follows: “Should the City of Methuen enact local legislation allowing the cultivation, transportation, and sale of marijuana/cannabis for all purposes presently deemed legal in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, including, without limitation, adult recreational use, within the City of Methuen.” Voters are asked to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
In the 2016 election, 11,050 Methuen voters voted to legalize marijuana, while 11,869 did not support the ballot measure, a difference of 819 votes.
If the ballot question passes Nov. 2, local leaders would begin to draft and pass an ordinance as to how, when and where cannabis is allowed in the city. Zones would also need to be mapped out to limit where licensed marijuana establishments could be located in the city. Then, businesses interested in coming to Methuen would enter into host community agreements with the city and be granted special permits. All cannabis businesses must also be fully licensed by the state Cannabis Control Commission before opening.
A local Cannabis Policy Working Group was established in 2018 by then-Mayor James Jajuga to discuss details related to marijuana in Methuen. That group included city stakeholders from the planning, police and legal departments, among others.
In 2019, that group surveyed more than 1,000 residents about their thoughts on cannabis.
The survey indicated that 57% of residents strongly agreed or agreed with allowing marijuana retailers to open in Methuen; 55% strongly agreed or agreed with allowing marijuana cultivators to open in Methuen and 55% strongly agreed or agreed with allowing marijuana manufacturers to open in Methuen.
The survey said that residents favored locations that were industrially zoned as well as the business zones along Merrimack Street, Pelham Street, Lowell Street and Pleasant Valley Street.
At that time, the city went through a lengthy process of creating an ordinance and zoning rules and restrictions, but there was enough opposition that the proposal was withdrawn by one of its authors, then-Council President James McCarty.
Joel Faretra represents Methuen’s central district, and says allowing cannabis in the city could prove a “huge” financial boost through revenue and job creation.
“Our location makes Methuen desirable for either retail, cultivation or delivery service. With the access to Interstates 93 and 495, we have an advantage over our neighbors, which is why many in the industry would want to come to Methuen,” Faretra said. “Any time a desirable business comes to the city, it provides a boost to those businesses around it. Whether it’s getting a meal, picking up groceries or running other errands, people will do other business while in the city.”
“Everyone wants a Wegmans or a Trader Joe’s in Methuen, but if they wanted to set up shop here, they would have by now. This industry is looking to come to Methuen,” Faretra added, pointing to the 3% tax paid on products that would stay in the host community. “Shops in Haverhill are writing checks for $300,000 to their city.”
One such business owner keeping an eye on the Nov. 2 vote is Andre Colon. Colon, who lives in Methuen, is the CEO of True House Cannabis, a company he said he hopes will provide safe, quality-controlled and tested marijuana to locals. Colon said that if the ballot question passes, he hopes to enter into a host community agreement with the city.
“Individuals can benefit from medicinal cannabis and if we can help educate the public on safe cannabis use, we can help heal communities,” Colon said. “People that buy off the black market don’t know what they are putting into their bodies: They can be buying cannabis that could have been contaminated or have mold.”
Those in opposition to allowing cannabis in Methuen include Linda Soucy, the founder of the Methuen Arlington Neighborhood, Inc. nonprofit, which aims to assist local children and families in one of Methuen’s inner-city neighborhoods.
Calling marijuana a “gateway drug,” Soucy believes approving cannabis will have an impact on Methuen youths.
“It’s sending the wrong message to the children of our community that it is okay to sell drugs in Methuen and if the city allows it, how could it be harmful to them,” Soucy said.
Councilor-at-Large Jessica Finocchiaro hopes that residents make sure to read the fine print before voting on Nov. 2.
“Using the term ‘without limitation’ with no specific plans or information on where these locations would be or any other details is not a fair, equitable, or transparent plan,” Finocchiaro said. “As someone who has lost close family and friends to addiction, and as an elected official who has seen things go truly wrong in government firsthand, I’m concerned about unintended consequences with this overly broad language.”
Others, however, say residents need not look further than neighboring communities like Haverhill or Amesbury to see the benefits cannabis dispensaries have provided to their host communities.
“Nearly two years of legal cannabis sales (in other communities) provides Methuen voters with excellent data to inform their vote,” said James Borghesani, communications director for the 2016 legalization campaign and a current industry consultant. “There have been no sales to minors, no increase in teen use, no increase in emergency room visits, no increase in crimes around dispensaries and no increase in public safety or public health costs to communities. The biggest issue is towns deciding how to spend the significant new stream of tax revenue from these businesses.”
Methuen Mayor Neil Perry, who said he voted in favor of cannabis in 2016, said he will act in accordance with the will of the community. He also underscored the difference between the legal and illegal drug trade.
“It’s an opportunity that’s bypassing us,” Perry said. “I’m not saying we set up retail shops — I want to be clear on that — but I think there’s a prevailing thought that if we open up distribution, we’re going to open up (the city) to the illegal drug trade. People who are buying it illegally are going to still buy it illegally. This is going to be housewives and your everyday people.”