In 2010, I was hired to facilitate a required neighborhood meeting about a proposed medical marijuana dispensary in a Colorado county. The proposed business was to be located in a mixed-use residential and business area. At that time, proprietors of such dispensaries were referred to as “caregivers”, and those purchasing marijuana were “patients”. Marijuana was to be sold only with a doctor’s prescription.
After I opened the meeting by describing the procedure for it as mandated by the county, the applicant for the rezoning for the marijuana dispensary gave a proposal overview, including a handout giving the highlights of it. This initial presentation took about 15 minutes. A question and answer period of about 90 minutes followed. I moderated this discussion and took notes (recording the neighbors’ questions and the applicant’s answers on a flip chart). One or two supporters of the proposal had come at the behest of the applicant. The others present were neighbors who were opposed to (or very concerned about) the operation of a medical marijuana dispensary in their neighborhood.
The whole concept of “caregivers” and “patients” was questioned extensively. The owner of a nearby recreational facility patronized by children and young adults was very concerned that the proposed facility, if approved, could put him out of business. Even though the stated intent was to sell only to “patients”, and the marijuana sold was to be grown on-site, there was still a general concern that product might be sold to others, including youngsters. A typical concern relating to controversial land use proposals was raised by many in attendance – a decrease in property values. Another strong concern among the attendees was the perceived potential for an increased crime rate. It was also noted that, although medical marijuana had been legalized in Colorado, the sale and use of marijuana was still illegal under federal law. In general, those in attendance were not convinced that a facility like the one proposed was adequately regulated under state law or local ordinances. All of these concerns were more intense because, within the preceding year, a hotly-opposed strip club had been approved by the County. It was within a block of the proposed dispensary and was already open and doing business.
In this environment, a public meeting can get out of hand, and the purpose (information exchange) can be lost. It was my job, as facilitator, to make sure that this didn’t happen. I was the guardian of the “safe space” for rational discussion. This discussion, while heated at times, never got out of control.
I preserved the “safe space” by
- Setting up clear expectations for the purpose and conduct of the meeting
- Giving each attendee a copy of a timed agenda (and sticking to it)
- Treating each person (including the applicant and the neighbors) with respect
- Making sure everyone who had a question got his/her turn
- Using the flip chart to clearly capture everyone’s questions and concerns (everyone knew that my record was to be transcribed by me and submitted to the county by the applicant)
- Reminding everyone, by my continuing speech and actions, that the process of the meeting was in my control
I don’t know if the applicant’s proposal was approved by the county. That was irrelevant to what I had been hired to do. I do know that I ensured that the applicant and the neighbors had every opportunity to discuss all of the ramifications of a medical marijuana dispensary in the neighborhood.