LAWRENCE — A hearing on a proposal to ban the sale of recreational marijuana drew more than 200 people where approximately two dozen people who spoke, during the first two hours of the hearing, favored the ban by a margin of nearly 2-to-1. Tuesday night's council hearing was the most widely attended at City Hall in recent history.
By just before 9 p.m., another 18 people waited to speak and the crowd had spilled to the sidewalk outside City Hall.
The hearing drew four candidates for mayor, including incumbent Daniel Rivera, and Police Chief James Fitzpatrick, two pastors, two ex-convicts, a handful of social workers and several parents with children. Both sides cited data, statistics, personal experiences and the results of the statewide referendum on the issue last year when voters statewide approved the recreational use of marijuana. Lawrence voters defeated the proposal in a landslide.
“We voted no and we hope you, the councilors, respect that,” said Gregory Delrosario, who is running for the council in District C.
“If you want to talk about the real issue in Lawrence, it's the opiate issue,” Steven Gill, the vice chairman of the city's Board of Health, told the council. “I can name 10 corners where marijuana is being sold right now. Why don't we (legalize the sale and) tax it?”
The recreational use of marijuana in Massachusetts became legal in December, but the state legislature delayed the opening of recreational pot shops until July 2018 to amend the terms of the law voters passed and give localities time to consider whether to regulate or ban commercial sales.
In the meantime, the state House and Senate are divided over proposed amendments to the law, including whether to give local officials the power to ban marijuana dispensaries or to reserve that power to local voters, as the law now provides. The House supports giving local officials the power to ban the sales; the Senate opposes it.
In the meantime, officials in scores of towns and cities have anticipated that the state will give them the power to limit or ban the sale of marijuana and have acted to do it. Voters at North Andover Town Meeting approved a moratorium on the sale earlier this year to give the town more time to consider how to regulate it. Methuen is considering a similar moratorium.
In Lawrence, councilors Modesto Maldonado — who is running for mayor — and Brian DePena have proposed one of the most restrictive bans in the state, which would outlaw growing, testing, selling “or any other type of licensed marijuana-related business.”
The proposal drew the super-sized crowd to City Hall Tuesday.
“I have my hands full in dealing with the perception that Lawrence is a place where drugs can be bought and sold,” Mayor Rivera told the council. “I ask you to change that perception. There already are too many ways for people in our community to find an escape from reality. It's easier to find a joint in Lawrence than a job.”
Former Mayor William Lantigua was in line to speak late in the evening. Lantigua said he would support banning commercial marijuana sales in Lawrence.
Ansel T. Gill explained to the council how marijuana saved him from a life as a dropout by helping him focus on accomplishing tasks that had eluded him. Gill said he dropped out of Fitchburg State University after accumulating a “zero point zero” cumulative average. He started smoking marijuana after dropping out, then enrolled in Northern Essex Community College and then UMass Lowell, where he said he earned a masters degree with a 3.88 cum, graduating with honors.
“All high on marijuana, by the way,” he told the council.
Tony Mejia, a roofer who attended the hearing with his young son, told a different story. He said he started smoking it at 13 years old, then spent six years in a gang.
“I'm living testimony of what marijuana can do,” Mejia said. “It all started with smoking cigarettes, then weed, then there it goes.”