BOSTON (State House News Service) - After medical marijuana rode a wave of popular support into the law books last November, cities and towns have passed a flurry of measures aimed at slowing down the new industry’s approach or defining where marijuana dispensaries can set up shop.
A News Service analysis shows at least 115 municipalities have passed temporary moratoriums, restricting medical marijuana dispensaries for a certain time, while others are considering similar measures and still more have drafted new zoning laws determining where they can locate.
The Department of Public Health, charged with implementing the new law, ruled that dispensaries where marijuana is sold to patients with a doctor’s authorization must handle the product from seed to sale, and the prospect of such operations has caused some consternation in city halls.
“Personally, I am against it in my city, but since we can’t not permit we have to make sure that we zone it in certain locations,” Lawrence City Councilor Frank Moran told the News Service.
Lawrence was one of only two municipalities, including Bellingham, that voted against the successful ballot referendum, and Moran said the city zoned marijuana dispensaries in the same place it zoned for adult entertainment, an out of the way area by the Casey Bridge where Moran said no adult entertainment venues have located.
“The city of Lawrence, they spoke very loud and clear. They don’t want it in the city,” Moran said.
Even towns where voters overwhelmingly supported the referendum have taken steps to delay the approach of a dispensary.
“We just wanted to make sure we had enough time with volunteers meeting only twice a month, to do this in a thoughtful manner,” said Charlene Nardi, the town administrator for Williamsburg near the colleges along the Connecticut River, where nearly 80 percent of voters approved of the legalization of medical marijuana. She said, “There’s no desire to not allow them.”
Nardi said the moratorium would end on June 30, 2014 and give the Planning Board time to craft measures around the new industry.
The large number of moratoriums, which are in place in about a third of the state’s 351 municipalities, according to a recent News Service count, indicates reticence among city and town officials, according to Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance Executive Director Matthew Allen, who said concerns are misplaced.
“I think those moratoriums are an indication of a lot of misperceptions of the dispensary system,” said Allen, who said concerns would likely be assuaged by more information, such as the prohibition on use of marijuana within the dispensaries and the potential economic benefits that could accompany them.
“I think it is appropriate for local municipalities to have a voice in the siting of dispensaries,” said Allen. He said, “Over the next few months, we’re going to see a lot of discussions at the local level.”
The law calls for between one and five dispensaries in each of the state’s 14 counties, and 181 prospective dispensary developers submitted initial applications in August, ranging in number from 47 who sought to establish themselves in Middlesex County to two who hope to open on Nantucket, which is both a county and a town.
The second phase of the application process involves more specific geographic information, including potentially plans that show the applicant “will be compliant with local codes, ordinances, and bylaws for the physical address,” according to the DPH regulations.
In a statement in August heralding the submission of phase one applications, Allen said, “At this rate, dispensaries should be registered to operate by January 2014, if not before.”
In Norfolk County south of Boston, a swath of towns established moratoriums, according to a list maintained by Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is tasked with reviewing the bylaws created by town meetings, and in March ruled that attempts to outright ban dispensaries do not comport with the new state law.
Assistant Attorney General Margaret Hurley determined that despite the great power afforded municipalities to self-govern, a town cannot adopt a zoning bylaw that is “inconsistent” with a state law or creates a situation where “the purpose” of the law “cannot be achieved in the face of” the local regulation.
The bylaws are reviewed on a case-by-case level, according to an AG official. On Monday, the AG approved a bylaw passed in North Reading, which extends a moratorium until Oct. 31, 2014.
Towns are allowed to establish a “temporary moratorium” to “impose reasonable time limitations on development” while the municipality engages in planning, Hurley wrote.
“We did provide a district in our industrial zone to allow for use based on the overwhelming vote of our citizens,” said Jeff Nutting, the town administrator for Franklin, one of the few municipalities in Norfolk not to create a ban. He said, “I would suspect someone would come along and apply probably.”
Ruth Clay, who is the health director for Reading and Wakefield, which both attempted to ban dispensaries, along with Melrose, said voters who supported the law “were voting for compassionate care” and “didn’t understand all the loopholes in it that makes it available to pretty much anybody.”
In March, Coakley’s office disapproved of Reading and Wakefield’s attempts to ban dispensaries.
Pittsfield, a city in Berkshire County, passed an ordinance in June allowing for three dispensaries within the city. The county only received a total of three applications for marijuana licenses.
Boston has not created a moratorium, though the Boston Public Health Commission has sought a Board of Health regulation that would allow it to permit and inspect dispensaries within the city.
Neither the attorney general’s office nor DPH were able to provide a definitive list of cities that have created moratoriums or other zoning ordinances. Coakley does not have to sign off on ordinances passed by cities. In several cases, moratoriums passed by town meetings have yet to be approved by Coakley.
A survey of cities combined with the data maintained on town bylaws reveals some geographic trends.
In the generally more sparsely populated towns west of Interstate 495, moratoriums are less common. Excluding Bourne, the Cape Cod towns closer to the canal have established moratoriums while the outer towns on the peninsula have no moratoriums.
Springfield is the biggest city in the state to have a moratorium. Around Boston, Cambridge has set a moratorium, Somerville is considering one, Quincy and Chelsea have zoning ordinances and Newton has no moratorium.
“I think our view is that properly sited and regulated, these should be about the same level of concern as people who sell tobacco,” said Betsy DeWitt, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen in Brookline, which has a moratorium. Brookline has prohibited tobacco sales at pharmacies.
“We do not want them across the street from a public school,” said DeWitt, who suggested they could possibly be sited alongside other health care facilities, and licensed through the selectmen.
“We were thinking we don’t want it to be like a storefront,” said Brookline Director of Public Health and Human Services Alan Balsam, who said he has talked to four vendors. He said, “There is interest by a number of different vendors… We don’t want to create barriers to people getting medicine but at the same time we want to make sure that public health and public safety is accounted for.”
[Mike Deehan contributed reporting.]