As Vermont Considers Legalizing Pot, Some Towns Are Restricting Head Shops

Mar 12, 2016

As lawmakers in Montpelier debate legalizing marijuana, some local communities are taking action to regulate businesses that cater to users of the drug. In Weathersfield, a new bylaw regulating what it calls “drug and tobacco paraphernalia establishments” went into effect on Wednesday.

Scott Osgood, the town’s land use administrator, says the conversation got started after a head shop that had been operating in Ascutney moved closer to the Weathersfield School.

"On Route 5 there was a business that was selling drug paraphernalia," Osgood explains. "And it’s very near the entrance to the elementary and middle school."

The business, called The Magic Mushroom, has since relocated to Claremont, New Hampshire. But the Weathersfield storefront is a place that’s likely to catch a child’s attention – a green and purple building flanked by chainsaw carvings of brightly painted polka-dotted mushrooms, reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland.

The building now stands empty, and the bylaw that went into effect this week prohibits any similar establishments from opening up shop that close to the school. But Osgood says stores selling bongs and pipes aren’t banned from the town altogether.

"People have a right to do business," he says, "but you can control where they can do it. Zoning does allow you to do that. So that’s what the zoning bylaw did."

Statues such as this one at the former Magic Mushroom head shop can grab the attention of children as well as adults.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

The Weathersfield bylaw states that stores selling drug and tobacco paraphernalia can’t be located within a half-mile radius of schools, libraries, recreational fields and licensed childcare centers. Melanie Sheehan is chairperson of the Mount Ascutney Prevention Partnership, a substance abuse prevention organization serving Weathersfield and surrounding towns. Her group worked with Weathersfield planners as they were drafting the bylaw.

Sheehan says that while tobacco use among youth is down, the use of newer nicotine and THC delivery devices is on the rise.

"The youth use of vape pens and e-cigarettes are actually increasing, so that's of concern," she says. "And also, these products have dual-use capability of having nicotine products, but also hash oil and marijuana products."

Sheehan indicated her group is willing to help other towns that may be considering taking similar action.

"I'm imagining as the word gets out, or as the ordinance gets shared among the region, if folks reach out to us we'd be happy to help," she says.

Weathersfield isn’t alone in restricting drug-related establishments. In early 2013 the village of Ludlow passed an ordinance banning drug and tobacco paraphernalia shops as well as medical marijuana dispensaries.

"I don't want Ludlow to turn into Boulder, Colorado." - Village Trustee Chair Robert Gilmore

In Ludlow’s case, such shops are banned throughout the entire village. Robert Gilmore is chairman of the Ludlow Village Trustees. He says discussions are underway to strengthen the existing ordinance, should the state legalize recreational marijuana use.

"We have to be proactive because I don’t want Ludlow to turn into Boulder, Colorado," he says. "We’re a family area and we don’t want to send the wrong message out to the people who have been so wonderful in coming up here and skiing at Okemo. It would be counterintuitive if we were to allow marijuana recreationally, I think."

Gilmore says that as a cancer survivor, he’s not opposed to medical marijuana. But he says between existing drunk driving and heroin addiction problems in Vermont, he doesn’t think legalizing recreational marijuana is a good idea. And he says he thinks other towns will consider similar ordinances, if the Legislature makes pot legal in Vermont.

"I think more and more towns will have to consider it," Gailmore says. "But this is one town that I think will resist it, and for all the right reasons."

Melanie Sheehan, of the Mount Ascutney Prevention Partnership, agrees local ordinances and bylaws are a good way limit youth exposure to drug and tobacco products.

Shops selling drug and tobacco paraphernalia are no longer allowed within a half-mile of the Weathersfield School.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"It's a good policy around substance abuse prevention because, by restricting the location of these drug and tobacco paraphernalia outlets, towns are taking an active role in protecting future generations from a proliferation of retail environments that promote a culture of drug use," she says.

And if recreational marijuana becomes legal in Vermont, officials in Weathersfield and Ludlow believe more towns will consider regulating where paraphernalia can be sold.