Towns look to restrict medical marijuana sales

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.

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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.

In 2008, state voters approved decriminalizing the possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana, replacing a potential prison sentence of up to six months with a $100 civil fine.

But Needham has been looking at raising its fine regardless of what happened with the medical marijuana ballot question, Fogg said.

“This is more of a deterrent, and it’s sending a message that public consumption of marijuana is not appropriate in our town,” she said.

Fogg said she is worried that marijuana will be much easier for teens to obtain.

The proposed bylaw is being discussed by various boards, and Fogg hopes the measure will be approved so it can go before Town Meeting in the spring for a vote.

Jerry Wasserman, chairman of the Needham Board of Selectmen, said he thinks there is some difference of opinion among board members but the higher fine hasn’t been formally discussed.

Many are questioning how the state Department of Public Health will be able to register and monitor both the dispensaries and the patients who obtain cards allowing them to use marijuana.

The state agency responded to Globe questions with an e-mailed statement:

“The department will work closely with health care and public safety officials to develop smart and balanced policies and procedures over the coming months,” said Dr. Lauren Smith, the department’s interim commissioner, in the statement. “We will work carefully, learn from other states’ experiences, and put a system in place that is right for Massachusetts.”

The Massachusetts Municipal Association is asking the state Legislature to delay implementation of the law so cities and towns have more time to update their bylaws, ordinances, and zoning regulations.

Vicente Sederberg LLC, a law firm based in Colorado, where medical marijuana was legalized a decade ago, specializes in advising medical marijuana operations, and started working in Medford about a week after the Nov. 6 vote. It had already received roughly 100 inquiries from people interested in opening dispensaries in the state, said Shaleen Title, a lawyer with the firm.

She said she hopes communities will think twice about banning dispensaries.

“As we all know, marijuana is widely available,” said Title. “What would actually happen is localities that pass bans force patients to go to the underground market, and that’s bad for patients and for communities as well.”

Her firm’s clients include Wanda James and Scott Durrah, a Denver couple who own Simply Pure, a company that creates edible marijuana products, and who are looking to open a dispensary in Massachusetts. They are eyeing Boston proper, James said, but 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 Weymouth native, likes the idea of a spot near the city’s major hospitals.

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