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Towns seek limits on medical marijuana

A measure to legalize medical marijuana in Massachusetts may have won decisive support at the ballot box this election, but communities across the Boston area are rushing to craft zoning regulations to limit where the drug dispensaries can be located, or in some cases ban them altogether, before the new law takes effect in January.

Two suburbs north of Boston, Wakefield and Reading, have approved local bans, and nearby Melrose and Peabody are considering similar steps. Many other communities, including Framingham, Quincy, and Boston, are studying restrictions.

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The quick and widespread response reflects concern with the potential impact of the shops, from increased crime to an influx of recreational users. While voters clearly want patients to benefit from the use of medical marijuana, local officials say, they also want the centers to stay clear of residential and business areas.

“Voters sent a clear message that as a policy, sick people should be able to use marijuana,” said Brian Palmucci, a city councilor in Quincy who is proposing a bylaw that would keep the centers away from neighborhoods and schools. “But it’s our job at the local level to set some reasonable standards as to where they go. They have the potential to have negative consequences on the area if it’s not done the right way.”

Under the law, approved by more than 60 percent of the state’s voters, as many as 35 centers can open next year, with a maximum of five centers per county.

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Boston City Councilor Rob Consalvo said he expects several privately run centers will try to open in the city, and hopes to pass a zoning bylaw to restrict them from residential and central business districts.

“We need to be prepared for this,” Consalvo said. “Right now, there’s nothing in the code to address this. And if there’s nothing that says ‘It can’t go here,’ someone will try. Why not nip this in the bud?”

The law calls for the state Department of Public Health to oversee the dispensaries and craft regulations by the end of April. Without state guidelines, local officials say they have no choice but to take action. Current zoning, many note, did not foresee this.

“We can only regulate so much when it comes to this,” Palmucci said. “They should at least tell us what a local municipality can do in terms of zoning, so we can set some reasonable standards.”

The law allows treatment centers to grow and distribute marijuana to patients diagnosed with a debilitating medical condition, such as cancer, Crohn’s disease, or multiple sclerosis. The nonprofit facilities must obtain a state license, pay a fee to offset administrative costs, and have its staff register with the health department. Anyone found guilty of trafficking the drug for recreational use could be punished by up to five years in prison.

The public health department has not provided details about how it will regulate the new system, but said in a statement it will “work closely with health care and public safety officials to develop smart and balanced policies and procedures.”

Officials will look to other states that have legalized medical marijuana to learn from their experiences, the department said.

Given the uncertainty, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a coalition of cities and towns, is calling for a six-month delay in implementing the law. That would give the state and communities alike time to wrestle with the implications of the policy shift, officials said.

“Cities and towns need to have an adequate amount of time,” said Geoff Beckwith, who directs the association. “Certainly, no one voted for this thinking it would bring a dispensary to their neighborhood.”

Zoning changes take time and typically need the approval of Town Meeting, usually held in the spring.

Ruth Clay, the public health director in Melrose, Reading, and Wakefield, said officials started planning zoning changes this summer, anticipating that the ballot measure would pass. They could see that the law was written broadly enough to invite abuse, Clay said. “It was not a knee-jerk reaction,” she said. “It was a planned response.”

Clay said local health officials have not had guidance from the state, but are hoping for safeguards to make sure the centers are not exploited.

While some town officials are seeking to prohibit the dispensaries, most are focused on where they should operate, and generally agree that office parks, industrial zones, and medical areas would be best.

Supporters of the dispensaries, while frustrated by local resistance, agree that centers would be well-suited near hospitals.

“That strikes me as extremely logical,” said Bill Downing, an official with The Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, which supports the legalization of the drug. Downing dismissed efforts to ban or impede centers as “a lot of posturing,” and cited studies that rebut claims that dispensaries are magnets for crime.

Experts at UCLA studied crime rates in 95 different parts of Sacramento, Calif., in 2009 and found no correlation between crime and concentration of medical marijuana outlets.

Law enforcement officials are skeptical, and say the law will be exploited by drug dealers and lead to more addiction.

But supporters say Massachusetts can use the experience of other states to craft strong regulations.

“It’s not as if Massachusetts will be reinventing the wheel here,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “There are practical models that are up and running and have been for some time.”

Regulations vary from state to state, he said, but are generally considered rigorous. A dozen states, including California, Colorado, and Maine, allow dispensaries.

Massachusetts town officials say that while banning centers may not pass legal muster, zoning restrictions should be valid.

“The precedent exists for adult entertainment facilities,” said Adam Baacke, who directs Lowell’s planning and development department. “Chances are, this is a use that will be viewed in a similar light.”

But some backers of the medical marijuana law say the debate may be moot. By the time the centers are licensed and set to open, marijuana may be legalized, some speculate.

“The population is behind this,” Downing said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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