As it stands now, The City of New Albany will allow the production and sale of medical marijuana, but the decision came as the result of votes by a sharply divided board of aldermen and followed a public hearing that began civilly but turned acrimonious with interruptions and literal demonizing of aldermen. The mayor could affect the outcome as well.
The vote came at the end of the two-and-one-half-hour meeting and public hearing attended by about 150 people, although many of those present were not city residents.
There were actually two separate votes and two separate issues before the board, which complicated the hearing and apparently confused members of the public who do not keep up with their city government.
Some background: The city has been working on a long-range comprehensive plan for several years.
In conjunction with that, the planner was tasked with updating the city’s zoning ordinances, which were out-of-date and not easy for the average person to understand.
When the draft of the comprehensive plan, New Albany NEXT, was ready, the zoning update was still a work in progress. Then, the question of whether to allow sale of medical marijuana came up.
Aldermen, wanting to control locations of dispensaries, decided to wait on the competed zoning update to see how that related to the marijuana law. The board voted to opt out of the marijuana program but clearly said they would opt back in once the zoning update was ready.
At the meeting Tuesday, the aldermen needed to decide whether to accept the long-range community plan and, if so, whether to accept it with a section regulating cannabis, or with that section omitted. A separate vote would be needed to opt back in to the marijuana program and no action at all would leave the city opted out.
The first motion that came to a vote was by Ward Four Alderman Will Tucker, who moved that the city adopt the New Albany NEXT plan and zoning, but without the cannabis section. Tucker had offered the same motion at the previous board meeting but it failed for lack of a second.
This time Tucker’s motion was seconded by Ward Three Alderman Kevin Dale White, who earlier expressed a desire to opt out of it and never opt back in.
Tucker’s motion lost in a 3-2 vote with only himself and White in favor of it.
After more discussion, Ward One Alderman Parks Smith moved to opt back into the marijuana program immediately and in all aspects of it. Ward Two Alderman Drew Horn seconded and the measure passed 3-2 with Alderman-as-Large Keith Conlee joining Smith and Horn.
They then voted to adopt the New Albany NEXT comprehensive plan as presented.
Afterward, Mayor Tim Kent almost immediately began to hear from people asking him to veto the board’s vote. He said this past week, “I haven’t vetoed anything in 17 years. I don’t think I’m likely to start now.” He added that the board had voted in favor of opting in and the people had voted in favor of the program so it was not his place to override the will of the majority. He has 10 business days from when the vote is presented to him to decide whether to return it to the clerk with his objections.
He said he is carefully studying the issue, weighing pros and cons brought by people he is talking with and had not made a decision Monday.
If Kent were to veto the vote it would require a two-thirds (four of five aldermen) majority to override his veto within three days of the veto.
Also, if he were to veto the board vote, members of the public could still circulate a petition and, with enough signatures (20 percent of the registered voters or 1,500, whichever is lesser), call for a public vote to settle the question regardless of the aldermen’s actions.
In response to a question, officials said they apparently cannot put the marijuana issue on the November ballot themselves and a public initiative can only be to opt in, not opt out.
Anyone who wants to go into the cannabis business faces a lengthy and expensive process.
Because the law is designed to prevent dispensaries or other cannabis facilities from being too close to churches, schools, residential use and some other areas, there are apparently only two small areas in New Albany where dispensaries could be legally operated. One is in the Park Plaza area near the C-Spire office and the other is on West Bankhead Street more or less across the street from Reed’s Market.
Much of what was said by members of the public had already been said at least once at previous meetings.
There was a clarification that, although a physician could give someone a medical marijuana card, the final determination would be made by the state. Even if New Albany and Union County opted out, residents could still get cards and get the cannabis elsewhere and still keep and use it legally here.
New was hearing emotional testimony from several people who said their lives have been drastically improved by the use of marijuana medically, and who had family members who would benefit from its use. Not everyone agreed that marijuana had medical value.
There was some argument that recreational marijuana use was inevitable just because of the medical bill, but also that it could pose problems to businesses pledged to remain drug-free.
Some people were concerned about the potential negative impact on the community’s image and law enforcement in particular was worried about adding more problems and criminal enforcement workload, as well as citing their experience with people whose lives have been ruined by drugs.
Before voting, the aldermen made some comments.
“This is not something we’re rushing into,” Ward One Alderman Parks Smith said. “We’ve delayed this decision for three months now. If the board were to decide to opt in, there’s not going to be a pot shop on every corner. We have very strict regulations as a part of our New Albany NEXT plan.” He said dispensaries had to be at least 1,000 feet from churches and schools and 250 feet from residential use areas so there aren’t very many places a dispensary could be.
“Also, any of the problems mentioned are already problems,” he said. “A lot of people buy and share marijuana right now… You mentioned you could just go to Tupelo. Somebody who needs this is going to be severely inconvenienced by this.” He added that if people are going to buy marijuana anyway, why send the revenue to other cities.
“I don’t see anything in this bill to suggest there would be pot shops on every corner. There’s nothing in this bill that suggests recreational. Why would we limit our growth opportunities and inconvenience law-abiding citizens?” he asked.
Ward Three Aldermen Kevin Dale White was clear, saying his opinion was that the board not table the issue any more. “Opt out and let’s not opt back in,” he said.
Ward Two Alderman Drew Horn said, “There’s one thing I want everyone to understand. Whichever way the vote goes tonight, it’s not a decision that was taken lightly. Every man on this board I have spoken to individually and we have prayed about it, I have spoken to my pastor about it and he prayed with me. This is something that was taken from every angle and every possible outcome into consideration.”
Alderman-at-Large Keith Conlee noted, “Believe me, I’ve had a number of conversations with a number of people in this room. When it first came up nobody said a word about it, then all of a sudden people started calling and the conversations started happening so I started doing my research.” The first thing that is important to him, he said, is that the people of New Albany voted for it.
“We represent the people of New Albany,” he said, and added that it was important for the board members to say something to the people and explain their reasoning.
He added that aldermen did a study about one building in New Albany comparing it to what it had been as opposed to being a growth facility. That one building would be worth a quarter million dollars to the city each year (based primarily on electrical use) more than the old tenant.
Ward Four Alderman Will Tucker, who had initially said the board would opt back in at the initial meeting, said, “Keith, you mentioned that the people voted on it. Nowhere on that ballot did it mention selling and growing marijuana in our community. I don’t think it’s best for New Albany to opt in.” He added that the city could always at a later date look at it again.
Mayor Kent has at least until Aug. 16 to make a decision. City officials are seeking clarification as to whether a veto must come within 10 days of the vote, or when minutes are approved next month because board actions do not become official until the minutes are approved.
Read the full article here