Officials fear pot dispensaries may harm fight against drug use

In a community that has struggled to curb underage drinking and drug use, questions raised by the statewide legalization of medical marijuana go beyond how dispensaries will be regulated.

In Walpole, officials also worry that the new law will lead to more-positive attitudes about the drug among young people, exacerbating a problem that youth-outreach advocates said they had just started to get a handle on.

“Now that medical marijuana is legal, they’ll say, ‘Is it such a bad thing?’ ” said Robin Chapell, Walpole’s health director. “Kids will say people are taking it as medicine.”

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“Let’s face it,” said Selectman Chris Timson, “the bottom line is that it’s ‘legal.’ What does that tell them?”

Chapell and Timson are among several town officials and volunteers involved in Walpole Coalition for Alcohol and Drug Awareness, an outreach program created about eight years ago to address rampant alcohol and drug use among local kids. Group activities, such as dances, are organized to give Walpole youths an outlet from the boredom that often leads to poor decisions, said Police Chief Richard B. Stillman.

“We’ve been trying to deal with this for a long time, but it’s an uphill battle. . . . Now, what we’re telling young kids [is that] marijuana is OK because we made it non-criminal,” Stillman said of the 2008 law decriminalizing possession of less than one ounce of the drug. “That was bad enough, and now we decided to call it ‘medical marijuana.’ ”

The state’s Department of Public Health has until May 1 to issue regulations on the new law, which took effect Jan. 1. Among the regulations will be conditions for opening distribution centers, and what constitutes a 60-day supply of marijuana — the maximum amount of the drug patients with debilitating medical conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, are allowed to possess.

But it’s lag time that worries some officials. Stillman, for instance, wonders whether, in the absence of a state-issued registration card for qualified patients, any paper signed by a doctor presented by someone carrying a large amount of marijuana would exempt them from criminal charges.

“If a 12-year-old hands me a napkin claiming it’s a medical note and he has a pound of marijuana, there’s nothing we can do,” Stillman said. “Once the Department of Public Health finishes their work, they’re supposedly going to come up with an ID card that the doctors will be issuing that has significance. But in the meantime, there’s no regulation whatsoever.” From now until May 1, it’s carte blanche for marijuana.”

Since the law was passed in November, some communities have scrambled to regulate or ban dispensaries altogether, for fear that they could attract crime or lead to increased use of the substance among juveniles. The law allows for up to 35 nonprofit shops to open across the state, with no more than five per county. Until state regulations are in place, dispensaries will not be allowed to open.

Among the communities that already voted to ban them, however, are Wakefield, Reading, and Saugus.

While understandable, such actions are premature, said Shaleen Title, an associate at Vicente Sederberg, a Denver-based law firm that specializes solely in medical marijuana issues and recently opened an office in Medford. In addition to serving as consultants to communities dealing with legalized medical marijuana, Title said the bulk of the firm’s business is assisting people interested in opening dispensaries.

“I can understand fear of the unknown, but if you talk to patients, what you find is these treatment centers are very important,” Title said. “We already have health care facilities, we already have pharmacies with medicine for these same issues. I think their fears will be reduced over time, but for now, I think the cities should try to look at it like any other health care facility.”

Walpole officials are stepping back and giving residents the first crack at determining where, if anywhere, such a facility should be located. A two-question survey posted on the town’s website asks residents whether the town should host a dispensing facility and, if so, where. A paper version will be mailed to residents soon, along with the annual town census.

Preliminary survey results are to be discussed at the Board of Selectmen’s Jan. 22 meeting, said chairman Eric A. Kraus. Town Administrator Michael E. Boynton said there is a “strong possibility” a question addressing the zoning of dispensaries will appear on the May Town Meeting warrant.

As of Monday afternoon, of 312 responses, 59 percent wanted a dispensary in town, said Chapell, the health director. Of those, almost 40 percent would like to see one downtown, followed closely by an industrial area, or a retail/mall/plaza. Only 10 percent said they would like to see one in a residential area.

Margarita Milla, a 20-year town resident and owner of a boutique on Main Street, said she wouldn’t mind having a dispensary downtown.

“For me, I’m not scared. They’re making too much of a big deal of it,” Milla said as she swept the sidewalk in front of her store Monday morning. “Marijuana is not a drug. Alcohol and regular cigarettes, those are a drug — the nicotine can produce cancer, and alcohol has horrible effects.”

Judy Connolly, a former resident who works at a sandwich shop in Walpole Center, said she would favor some kind of zoning restricting the location of a dispensary. She added she “is not that worried” about the message kids would receive from it.

“I don’t think it’s going to make the [drug and alcohol] problem better or worse,” she said. A dispensary “should be out in the open, like a business.”

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