SHIRLEY -- A small but engaged audience turned out for a Planning Board forum on whether marijuana facilities -- medical, recreational or both -- should be allowed in town.
And if so, where should they go?
Based on input from the forum, an online survey and other sources, the board plans to draft a bylaw that will either ban such facilities or set regulations and establish zoning for them, according to Chairman Bill Oelfke.
"We wanted a moratorium," he said, giving the board more time to work. But because he skipped a step in the process prior to the recent Town Meeting -- hearings and other work in progress now -- that option is off the table.
The goal, now, based on legal counsel's advice, is to have a bylaw ready to go for a special town meeting in mid-March or early April, Oelfke said.
Meanwhile, townspeople are urged to follow the process and weigh in.
"We'll be meeting every week until it's done," member Janet Tice said.
Most residents who weighed in on the issue Wednesday night favored allowing both medical and recreational facilities in town, but not downtown.
Debra Flagg, a lifelong resident, retired teacher and Shirley's newest selectman, lost her son to an opioid overdose not long ago and is a strong anti-drug advocate. When this question came up, she was leery, she said, tending toward no.
With a caveat.
"I'm not against it...just not down town," she said, citing proximity to both an elementary and a middle school.
Hillier said state law addresses that concern, stating that marijuana facilities must be 300 to 500 feet away from schools.
Flagg wasn't the only one whose support was tenuous -- and Hilliard's comments seemed to allay some other people's fears as well. Although his facility has never had a problem -- no break-ins, no fake IDs -- added public safety costs, if any, can be added to permit fees and a tax of up to three percent that communities can charge.
After four years in business, the 25-year Shirley resident said he's seen regulations change a lot. But cannabis was obtainable before his dispensary came to Ayer and would be there anyway, he said, just not safely regulated.
"It's been around a long time, sold by dealers, to anyone, without responsibility," he said. So in a way, the movement to legalize cannabis is a "teachable moment," he added.
The segue from medical dispensaries to retail stores is a step those in the industry saw coming, he said.
"We'd sensed it would go recreational," he said, in part due to the medical costs of getting marijuana by prescription. An ID card allowing consumers to buy it costs $150.
As to whether the town wants a cannabis shop in town, it might not come up.
"Shirley's so small, most of them wouldn't want to come here," he said and if they did, it wouldn't be downtown. "That wouldn't work, not in Ayer, either," he said. People buying cannabis products would look for a place on the way home from work, say, on a major road.
Hilliard said that some aspects of the legalized cannabis trade might fare better than others here. A manufacturing plant rather than a store, for example. Or a laboratory.
"Prohibition was a mistake, this is similar," he said.
His take on the "gateway drug" notion was equally arresting. "The gateway drug is the drug dealer," he said.
Steve Hampson agreed. "You can get marijuana in a heartbeat" as it is," he said. "I'm all for it...It should be on 2A," he said, referring to a retail store. If not a store, then cultivation. The company he works for builds medical marijuana facilities, he said, costing a million dollars or more. "The technology is amazing!"
And the product will sell, not only to the younger set. "As people age, they might need something stronger than Advil" to ease aches and pains, he said.
A couple of residents spoke out strongly against it.
Tristum Darby, formerly a police officer for 28 years, argued for a ban. "I'm against it," he said. Citing the small downtown area, where he believes retailers would want to set up shop, he pointed out that there are few businesses there now.
"The barber's gone, the gas station, restaurants come and go. We can't keep the businesses we have," he said. "What kind of traffic would this generate?"
In his view, it would risk Shirley's small town image. "First it's the medical facility, then it's the gentleman's club," he said. "That's progress."
Kelly Seager also called for a ban. "My gut feeling is that...it's not the kind of feel we want" for the town, nor would it attract the best citizens. "My preference would be no."
That option, however, contradicts the town's official stand on legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts. Had Shirley voters said no to the state ballot question, the law would have allowed the selectmen to just say no now, Oelfke explained. But because they said yes -- albeit by a slim majority -- a ban can only be imposed via a Town Meeting vote backed by a town-wide ballot.
Jennifer Martinez said she came to listen and learn. "How do you define facility?" she asked.
Citing a training session she'd attended, Tice said it was an "establishment" that could operate in a number of different ways. It could, for example, be a growing facility, indoors or out; a test lab, a manufacturer of pills, ointments, edibles or other cannabis products, a storage and distribution warehouse, a medical marijuana dispensary, recreational retailer or any combination of those things. "Basically, everything," she said.
Later in the evening, Martinez spoke up again, this time identifying herself as a high school freshman.
"I'm probably more educated (on this subject) than most of you," she said. Marijuana is everywhere and kids can get it as easily as adults, she said, as well as other drugs and alcohol. "There's things that are way worse" than marijuana, she said.
For some, it's a medical necessity. A friend's mother has cancer and uses a lotion made from the substance, Martinez said. "It's the only thing that calms her down."