Massachusetts cities and towns may not ban medical marijuana dispensaries, according to a ruling issued Wednesday by the state attorney general’s office, but they will be allowed to adopt temporary moratoriums, gaining time to craft local rules for regulating the facilities.
The attorney general’s rulings was issued as communities await proposed state regulations, slated to be released later this month, that many hope will clarify mounting questions about local oversight of the dispensaries.
The attorney general’s office said outright local bans would frustrate the purpose of the medical marijuana law, overwhelmingly passed by referendum last fall, which allows patients with certain medical conditions to obtain marijuana for medical use.
“The act’s legislative purpose could not be served if a municipality could prohibit treatment centers within its borders, for if one municipality could do so, presumably all could do so,” the ruling said.
A handful of municipalities — including Wakefield, Melrose, and Reading — had adopted bans, citing concerns about substance abuse, crime, and property values.
Wednesday’s ruling specifically addressed Wakefield’s prohibition; bans in Melrose and Reading, however, mirror Wakefield’s.
In a separate decision, the attorney general’s office approved a temporary moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries in Burlington, which banned such centers until June 30, 2014.
Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the decision to allow moratoriums sends a clear signal that municipalities can retain control over many aspects of the contentious issue.
“Certainly the door is open, and we believe wide open, for communities to be able to regulate this,” Beckwith said.
“For example, they will be able to proscribe the locations where a facility could be allowed or not allowed, for example not in a residential area, not near schools, not in a downtown commercial district.”
Peter Hechenbleikner, the town manager in Reading, which approved a total ban on dispensaries in the fall, said he was disappointed.
“I think we need to consider as a community what our options are,” he said. Town officials will discuss whether to appeal the ruling or, potentially, to seek a moratorium.
Tiziano Doto, a selectmen in Wakefield, said he was “certainly disappointed” with the decision, but said town officials would seek to restrict the centers to parts of towns where they would have “the least impact.”
“We did not want any kind of facility like that in the town,” he said. “We’re trying to keep the town as clean as possible.”
Mayor Rob Dolan said that Melrose would probably consider replacing its ban with a moratorium. But he said it would be difficult to find a site for a dispensary in his community, given its lack of an industrial area, and the proximity of its business areas to churches and schools, a proximity that, he said, would not be suitable for marijuana dispensaries.
The municipal association continues to push for a six-month delay, until Oct. 1, in implementing the law, because many municipalities will not hold town meetings or elections until late spring, making it difficult for them to enact bylaws before the state marijuana rules go into effect.
State public health regulators announced Wednesday that they will release eagerly anticipated draft regulations March 29, hold a public hearing April 19, and vote on final rules May 8. If approved, those rules would take effect May 24.
Dr. Lauren Smith, the state’s interim public health commissioner, said adopting rules is far from the final step in creating a medical marijuana treatment system.
“It’s an important milestone,” Smith said. “But I want to make sure the public understands that the final regulations, when promulgated, does not mean the entire system of medical marijuana has been built and is ready to provide assistance to patients.”
Regulators said they anticipated that those seeking to open a dispensary will be engaging in a competitive process this summer and fall.
Dorian Des Lauriers — treasurer for the Coalition for Responsible Patient Care, a medical marijuana trade association — said his coalition was pleased with the regulators’ timeline.
“I think most people who are interested in getting involved in this space are pretty far down the path with their ideas and plans,” he said.
“Now it becomes a matter of fitting those plans into the new regulations.”Kay Lazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.