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Amid concerns about medical marijuana being diverted for recreational use after it becomes legal Jan. 1, municipal officials across the area are pondering whether and how they might restrict cannabis sales within their borders. At the same time, lawyers and consultants specializing in medical marijuana issues are coming to Massachusetts to capitalize on the new law.
In Westborough, officials decided last week to draft a bylaw banning medical marijuana dispensaries, but they will insert a provision setting limits on where they could go, if an outright prohibition does not pass legal muster.
In Needham, officials have drafted a bylaw to increase fines for using marijuana in public. In Newton, city lawyers are watching what is happening in other municipalities, such as Reading and Wakefield, which both approved zoning bans against medical marijuana dispensaries.
Voters on Nov. 6 overwhelmingly approved a statewide ballot question legalizing marijuana use by patients with debilitating medical conditions such as cancer, Crohn’s disease, or multiple sclerosis. Under the law, up to 35 nonprofit treatment centers, with at least one in each of the state’s 14 counties, will be able to grow, process, and provide marijuana.
The state’s Department of Public Health has 120 days after the law takes effect, or near the end of April, to issue regulations covering registration of patients and dispensaries. From Jan. 1 until the agency makes its decision, a patient with a written recommendation from a physician can grow a limited number of marijuana plants for personal use.
Municipal leaders say they will need to see the state health department’s regulations before they can finalize their community’s response.
How the new law plays out legally is also being watched closely by consultants and lawyers who are part of the industry surrounding medical marijuana.
Bruce Bedrick, fresh off a red-eye flight from Arizona, sat on the floor of his unfurnished office on Speen Street in Natick on Monday and talked about his consulting group, Kind Clinics. Bedrick has helped people open dispensaries across the country, he said, and also sells his Medbox technology, which uses a computerized fingerprinting system to dispense marijuana.
“When towns try to ‘zone out’ a state-authorized facility, that usually spells trouble for everybody,” said Bedrick.
Patients need access to medication, and concerns about crime are overplayed, he said.
“There will be no drug addicts standing on the corner trying to shove medicine down your nursery child’s throat,” said Bedrick.
But municipal and law enforcement officials remain concerned about the new law’s potential side effects.
Westborough’s Planning Board met with a wide range of town officials on Nov. 20.
“We discussed having a two-pronged approach,” said Jim Robbins, Westborough’s director of planning. “We would first attempt to ban it, and then if a ban is found to be unlawful we would fall back to a bylaw we would pass at the same time.”
Plan B would be to limit dispensaries to certain commercial or industrial zoning districts, where they are some distance from anywhere minors gather, such as schools and community centers, he said, with the buffer zone perhaps 1,000 or 1,500 feet.
Robbins said he hopes to have a draft ready within a few weeks, but it would likely go before annual Town Meeting in March.
Medfield Police Chief Bob Meaney said he doesn’t oppose medical use of marijuana, but he’s worried that wider availability will mean increased use by teens.
“Almost every time we have a negative interaction with a young person, alcohol is involved, and since the decriminalization of marijuana, more and more marijuana is involved,” he said. “I don’t want another substance to become more easily available to them.”
But if Medfield is to respond, it won’t be right away, said Town Administrator Michael Sullivan, who echoed many other local officials in saying it makes sense to wait and see what the state regulations look like first.
Municipal lawyers have a lot of questions about what the local legal options might be.
“There is some controversy as to whether a town may ban something outright or whether they can just restrict it to certain locations,” said Marie Lawlor, assistant city solicitor in Newton.
The issue hasn’t formally been raised in Newton, but the law department wants to be ready, she said.
In Needham, officials are proposing a bylaw that would increase the fine for using marijuana in public from $100 to $300, a change that about 84 Massachusetts communities have already made in recent years, said Jane Fogg, a physician and member of the town’s Board of Health.Continued...