Only Residents, not BOS, can Get Question of Marijuana Business in Wilton on Nov. Ballot — and the Clock is Ticking

photo: Pexels/Sharon McCutcheon

As details of Connecticut’s new recreational marijuana law emerged following the law’s passage on June 22, the members of Wilton’s Board of Selectmen (BOS) were initially inclined to let town residents decide whether to allow or prohibit cannabis businesses in Wilton rather than take preemptive action as a board.

The clear consensus at the July 20 BOS meeting was to bring the issue to a town vote and let voters have their say, and as soon as possible.

However, the latest guidance from town counsel indicates that the BOS lacks the authority to put “local questions” on the upcoming November election ballot, which is overseen by the Connecticut Secretary of State. The only way such a question could make November’s ballot would be if residents make it happen — and fast.

Nicholas Bamonte, an attorney with the town’s law firm Bercham Moses, explained the nuances to the selectmen at their Aug. 2 meeting.

The November ballot could include a referendum only if a petition is signed by at least 10% of Wilton’s registered voters at least 60 days prior to the Nov. 2 election.

That deadline is quickly approaching. First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice pointed out such a petition would have to be received by the Town Clerk no later than Sept. 2.

Vanderslice also mentioned she was not aware of any petition efforts that may be underway. But in the event of a properly filed petition and November vote, the outcome would decide the broad question as to whether to allow or prohibit cannabis “establishments” (which include 11 different categories of cannabis-related businesses) in Wilton.

The new law also gives Wilton’s town officials the authority to regulate cannabis establishments, either by zoning regulations or through a local ordinance. The authority could include prohibiting any or all of the cannabis establishments in Wilton, or restricting their hours, signage or locations.

The other avenue Wilton could take would be an adjourned vote following a special Town Meeting. Vanderslice told GOOD Morning Wilton it would be unrealistic to hold a special Town Meeting within a short timeframe of the November election. As a result, she said, “The earliest we [could] have a special Town Meeting is January.”

While the BOS has expressed its preference for residents to decide the issue, the law is unclear what would happen in a municipality if public opinion and town authority were in conflict. Hypothetically, if the town voted to allow cannabis businesses, but zoning regulations prohibit them, which would have precedence?

GMW reached out to Bamonte for insight on that question.

“I’m not sure how that’s ultimately going to shake out,” he said. “Right now it’s a gray area. The law doesn’t clearly state what happens in that scenario and which takes precedence, so it’s more of a legislative intent question.”

Bamonte relayed one interpretation he heard from a member of Gov. Ned Lamont’s staff, which suggested that the stricter action — i.e., one that would prohibit — would have precedence.

During the BOS meeting, Bamonte also told the BOS that several towns have chosen to sidestep the issue in the near term by issuing a moratorium — or a temporary zoning regulation akin to a moratorium — that would effectively prevent establishments from operating in their towns for anywhere from six months to two years.

“The thought [among those towns] is, ‘Let’s just pump the brakes a bit, hit the pause button, give ourselves some time to think about this more,’” Bamonte explained.

Given that the state is not expected to begin issuing licenses to cannabis establishments until next spring, Bamonte suggested there is no immediate sense of urgency to decide whether or not to implement a temporary measure or moratorium.

But apart from the questions about cannabis businesses, there are also questions about public use or consumption of cannabis products.

While recreational use is now legal, the new law gives Wilton the authority to regulate the use of cannabis products on town-owned or town-controlled properties, including parks, trails and sidewalks, for example.

Just as the town has prohibited the use of tobacco in those areas, the BOS could create a similar ordinance that applies to the use of cannabis products. Such an ordinance, which could include fines for offenders, could go into effect by Oct. 1.