Should New Milford ban smoking or vaping marijuana on town property?

New Milford is considering banning cannabis use on town property. 

New Milford is considering banning cannabis use on town property. 

Carol Kaliff/Hearst Connecticut Media

NEW MILFORD — A proposal to ban marijuana use on town-owned properties has fallen under scrutiny, with some community members worried they'll be "hassled" for smoking pot. 

The idea behind the ban is to prevent residents from suffering from secondhand smoke, keep public places safe for all and to help the town avoid lawsuits, said Mayor Pete Bass, who recommended the ordinance to Town Council. The ordinance would allow law enforcement to fine people found smoking or vaping marijuana on or inside town properties.

But some residents have questioned the ordinance's purpose and reach. 

“I don’t think anybody’s thinking about going down to the Green and sitting in a circle and doing barn hits like it’s the 60s,” said New Milford resident Sean Kelly, who wore a "Grateful Dead" T-shirt to a Nov. 14 public hearing on the issue.

He said he was worried about being hassled for smoking while hiking or fishing. He and other residents asked for clarification on where people could and couldn't use marijuana because "town property is a huge scope.” 

The ordinance would not apply to places like town roads or cul-de-sacs because they would be considered transient areas, said Randy DiBella, town attorney. Town zoning would set rules around how far away from town property the public could smoke, he said. 

Bass said residents can do what they want in their homes, but as far town buildings and properties go, "we really have to be aware of litigation and really try to minimize and mitigate those risks for our taxpayers.”

Like Bass, other residents raised concerns about the dangers of secondhand smoke.  

“I grew up in a house with secondhand smoke and it’s a dangerous thing to do,” said Northville resident Mary Antonelli.

New Milford Councilwoman Alexandra Thomas said the town already has an ordinance that prohibits smoking on town property.

“To me, smoking is smoking, whether it’s cannabis or tobacco,” Thomas said, “so I feel we already have an ordinance… I will not be supporting this tonight because I feel we’re putting ourselves in a position of lawsuits down the road. We have people who have prescriptions for the use of cannabis and I can see some real problems coming at us in the future.”

Bass shared his research into how other towns are handling the ban of cannabis use. He said Bethel prohibits smoking, alcohol and drug use in any town zones and parks, and Newtown prohibits tobacco products “in all parks at all times” and “violators may be prosecuted.” 

“We could have just changed our policy to include cannabis in our smoking regulations,” Bass said. “I wanted us to be way more transparent than that — I want the public to know that smoking cannabis on town property, if this goes through, it's illegal and there’s a proper mechanism put in place, which happens to be the Town Council and this ordinance.”

Creating the ordinance could prevent the town from facing litigation in the future. 

"We have to really minimize our risk and that’s pretty much one of the main drivers and reasons why we’re looking at town properties not allowing that," Bass said. 

Town Council Vice Chair Katy Francis pointed out that this ordinance is separate from any regulations the town may set for cannabis dispensaries or growers. She argued the public could easily find places to use marijuana, outside of town property. 

“We have to remember this is the largest town in the state and we have an awful lot of property that’s not the towns’,” Town Council Vice Chair Katy Francis. “I don’t think it’s going to impede anybody from enjoying whatever it is they want to enjoy any more than they’ve been impeded up to this point.”