Communities anticipate limits on pot dispensaries

Ever since the statewide ballot question to legalize medical marijuana passed in the Nov. 6 election, many officials south of Boston have been scrambling to figure out how they might regulate where the drug can be distributed in their communities.

City councilors in Quincy are considering passing new zoning restrictions, and officials in Randolph hope to have similar regulations drafted by Christmas. In Hanover, town officials are working with police to get a proposal ready by spring Town Meeting, and in Milton, the police chief is scheduled to discuss the issue with selectmen at their meeting Thursday.

Meanwhile, the police chief in Norwood says he wants to work with state health officials to establish detailed policies regarding enforcement of the new law. Officials in Abington, Avon, Braintree, Dedham, Halifax, and a number of other communities are also starting to take a closer look at their zoning rules to see what can be done.

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“We are looking at doing something . . . so we have some control over what’s going to happen,” said Avon Town Administrator Michael McCue. 

The flurry of activity follows the convincing decision on Question 3, approved by 63 percent of Massachusetts voters. Slated to take effect Jan. 1, the measure will allow people with certain medical conditions to possess up to a 60-day supply of marijuana, and paves the way for 35 nonprofit “medical marijuana treatment centers” to open over the next year.

The law calls for there to be at least one, but not more than five, of these centers in each of the state’s 14 counties, and allows them to grow, process, transport, and sell marijuana to qualifying patients.

The potential of a “pot shop” opening in their midst has riled opponents of the measure and has put many city and town officials on guard. Local officials are anxiously waiting for the state Department of Public Health to release more details about how the new law will work.

The Massachusetts Municipal Association has asked the Legislature to delay implementation of the law, giving cities and towns more time to review and update their ordinances and zoning rules in preparation for what could be coming to their community.

“This is something that has been illegal forever in Massachusetts, up until this point,” said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “Communities have never had an opportunity to discuss rules on where marijuana dispensaries should be located. Communities need to have time, and we hope that they are afforded that.”

In Randolph, where 58 percent of voters in town voted “yes” on Question 3, Councilor at Large James F. Burgess Jr. said he hopes the Town Council will consider some proposed regulations by Christmas that would limit where medical marijuana dispensaries can be located.

“If they opened by schools, public parks, we’d be very concerned,” said Burgess.

In Quincy, where 61 percent of voters approved the ballot question, Ward 4 Councilor Brian Palmucci has proposed an ordinance that would prohibit marijuana dispensaries from opening within 1,500 feet of a school, day-care center, or residential neighborhood. Palmucci said he based the language on regulations that are in place in Denver (medical marijuana has been legal in Colorado for more than a decade).

“My worst fear is . . . a corner convenience store will say, ‘Hey, I could make some money off of this,’ and clear half their shelves to sell marijuana,” said Palmucci. “It’s the kind of thing we don’t want in a residential neighborhood or a school.”

Palmucci said he wants “community standards in place, in writing, on day one” when the law takes effect. His proposal is being reviewed by the City Council’s Public Safety and Ordinance committees.

Palmucci said he’s already received phone calls from people interested in opening marijuana establishments in Quincy, as well as phone calls from “a half-dozen” municipalities asking for a copy of the ordinance he drafted.

“I just wanted to start the discussion and get something in place before the new law went live,” he said. “We just want to set some reasonable regulation of where these things can go.”

Palmucci hopes that the city will adopt the new ordinance and that it can serve as a model for other municipalities.

In many communities south of Boston, any local bylaw or zoning changes have to approved by Town Meeting.

Halifax Town Administrator Charlie Seelig said officials in his community are taking a closer look at its zoning rules.

“Retail stores are allowed in certain districts,” Seelig said in an e-mail. “The question for now is whether a ‘medical marijuana treatment center’ falls within the bounds of a definition of a ‘retail store.’ ”

In Walpole, where 55 percent of voters approved the question, Police Chief Richard B. Stillman said the law leaves many unanswered questions. For example, if legislation is passed that delays legal dispensaries from opening, is it OK for qualifying patients to buy marijuana from drug dealers?

“There are so many problems with this law,” said. “We were trying to let public know this is a bad law. It’s just a joke. It makes marijuana legal in Massachusetts with really no oversight. Supposedly DPH has oversight, but how much attention they’ll be able to pay to this is anybody’s guess.”

Stillman and other area officials said they are waiting to see what kind of specific regulations are issued by the Department of Public Health, since it is the state agency responsible for regulating medical marijuana, and determining what constitutes a “60-day supply” of marijuana, how much application and registration fees should cost, and other details.

The measure calls for the agency to issue those regulations within 120 days of when the law takes effect. Norwood Police Chief William G. Brooks said the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association has offered to work with the state to help hammer out some of those details. As a board member of the chiefs’ group, Brooks said, he hopes to be able to participate in the process.

Dr. Lauren Smith, interim commissioner for the Department of Public Health, has said the state will “work closely with health care and public safety officials to develop smart and balanced policies and procedures” in the coming months. “We will work carefully, learn from other states’ experiences, and put a system in place that is right for Massachusetts,” she said.

For now, communities are doing what they can to be ready when the new law takes effect.

Members of the Avon Coalition for Every Student have formed a committee to study the new law and determine how it will affect the town. They will examine what local policies the town can adopt, and look at the implications for schools, physicians, and landlords, coordinator Amanda Decker said.

Weymouth Mayor Susan M. Kay recently asked her department heads to quickly review the ballot measure and see what kind of zoning regulations could contain medical marijunana establishments.

“I hope [a medical marijuana dispensary] does not come to Weymouth,” she said. “We’re very concerned.”

Among those interested in opening a marijuana dispensary in the Bay State are Wanda James and her husband, Scott Durrah. They own a Denver-based company, Simply Pure, which creates edible marijuana products, and they’re looking to open a dispensary in Boston. James said an outlet outside the city is a possibility, too.

“Most of our patients tend to be women around 40 to 55, so the suburbs is a wonderful spot as well,” she said. “It’s important for us to be able to show it’s not for kids, it’s not about being stoned, it truly is bringing help to people who are suffering from nausea,’’ she said. “We see a lot of cancer patients; we see a lot of end-of-life patients.”

Durrah, a native of Weymouth, said he likes the idea of dispensaries near the region’s major hospitals.

“We see Boston as an incredible opportunity, and as another way to legitimize this industry further,” he said.

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