Hancock favors restrictive route in retail marijuana

Joshua Vissers/Daily Mining Gazette Councilwoman Whitney Warstler, a member of the Hancock City Council’s committee on recreational marijuana, addresses the rest of the council about the marijuana ordinance, while fellow member William Lytle, left, listens.

HANCOCK — The Hancock City Council decided to move forward with the process of instituting the new ordinance prohibiting marijuana establishments within the city at Monday night’s special council meeting.

The next step is a public hearing at 6 p.m. on Jan. 17 in the council chambers before the regular council meeting.

The council voted 5-2 to defeat a motion to rescind the decision and spend more time on the ordinance.

William Lytle and Whitney Warstler, two members of the three-member committee studying recreational marijuana, were the only votes in favor of rescinding.

One concern that Lytle brought up was the continuation of the illicit marijuana market.

“I’m concerned that we will reduce the safety in our community by imposing higher levels of regulation that do not allow for businesses to operate legally,” Lytle said.

Lytle also said he believes nearby cities will be “open for business,” selling marijuana to Hancock residents anyway.

He encouraged the council to think of ways that legalization might help the community, in its fight against opioids and financially, and reminded the council the population of the city did slightly favor the legalization proposal.

“Most of this just revolves around money,” said John Slivon, the third member of the committee.

He believes the proposal passed in large part because of the potential for local and state tax revenue, and that the ordinance banning establishments in Hancock is about keeping the city eligible for grants and loans from federal agencies that still consider marijuana a dangerous illicit substance.

Mayor John Haeussler is concerned that the state could publish their rules at any time.

“We won’t get a warning,” he said.

In the absence of a city ordinance, published state rules would let businesses in Hancock apply for a license, and the city would have to allow it.

Warstler and Lytle believe the state will not be releasing its rules anytime soon. They want to consider a more permissive ordinance before a public hearing.

Haeussler’s biggest concern is the potential loss of Rural Development water and environmental program (WEP) loans or grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). He said that over the last 10 years, those grants have brought the city $17.2 million, and it isn’t worth risking over a few thousand tax dollars from marijuana establishments.

The USDA requires the signing of an agreement that reads in part, “A WEP loan or grant will not be approved to an applicant which engages in marijuana-related activity, proposes to engage in such activity or allows such activity on its premises.”

Councilman Paul LaBine, an attorney who has done reading on the marijuana law, said the ordinance is just a protective measure for the city and can always be repealed or modified later, after the state has put its policies into place.

“There’s nothing permanent about an ordinance,” he said.