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Marijuana zoning in question

A new law legalizing medical marijuana in Massachusetts is challenging communities north of Boston to write new zoning identifying areas where shops distributing the substance may — or may not — open after the new law takes effect on Jan. 1.

Proposals vary widely, from bans in Reading, Wakefield, and potentially Melrose, to zoning amendments proposed in Malden, Salem, and Woburn, and to restricting medical marijuana dispensaries to Route 1 in Peabody.

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“It’s what we did with adult zoning,” said Ward 5 Councilor David Gamache, whose Peabody district includes Route 1. “It would be in an area where there are no children, churches, or schools. I would not want to see it downtown or near the [Northshore] mall.”

Melrose Mayor Robert J. Dolan said a ban is the way to ensure the shops would not have a negative impact on the Victorian City.

“Melrose has very few business districts,” Dolan said. “And all of them are located within 100 yards or so of a school, a church, a day care center, a playground. I feel strongly that [dispensaries] are not an appropriate use in that area.”

A proposal introduced Tuesday to the Woburn City Council would require medical marijuana treatment centers no closer than 1,000 feet from a residential neighborhood, school, church, or where “large numbers of minors regularly congregate.” A center must be at least 2,000 feet from a public park, playground, nursery school, or day care center, the proposal states.

Jennifer Manley, a spokeswoman for the Committee for Compassionate Medicine, which proposed the Nov. 6 ballot question, did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.

The law calls for the state Department of Public Health to allow up to 35 marijuana dispensaries to open across the state. At least one facility, but no more than five, would be located in each of the state’s 14 counties. Marijuana could be grown, stored, and sold from the dispensaries.

Patients with debilitating conditions, such as cancer or multiple sclerosis, would have to show a written certification from a doctor to obtain up to a 60-day supply, the law states.

In a statement, Dr. Lauren Smith, interim commissioner for the state Department of Public Health, said her office is working to develop a policy to regulate medical marijuana in the state.

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

Some local public health directors are eager for clear guidance.

“It remains to be seen what the DPH is going to do,” said Chris Webb, public health director in Malden. “If past practice is any indication . . . they’ll probably put together some model regulations for cities and towns to follow.”

“We’re assuming we’ll get some direction from DPH,” said Brian LeGrasse, public health director in Methuen. “We’re trying to be proactive. We’re looking into what local regulations we should have.”

City councils in Lawrence, Methuen, and Revere have yet to take up the question, according to city clerks in those communities. Lawrence was one of only two Massachusetts communities, along with the town of Mendon, where residents voted against legalizing medical marijuana. The measure lost by 51 percent to 49 percent in each community, according to election results.

The Lowell City Council has yet to propose any zoning, but it did adopt a motion stating that the city’s state representatives and senators be involved in any final drafting, said City Clerk Michael Geary.

“I think they wanted to make sure our delegation is involved, in case there is some tweaking of the bill” in the Legislature, Geary said.

In Malden, Webb is drafting language to amend the city’s zoning code to allow dispensaries in areas zoned for medical use. A joint public hearing of the Planning Board and City Council will be held in December, he said.

“It basically puts them in the same zoning as medical services,” Webb said. “It’s on the edges of our industrial zone.”

In Salem, the City Council is looking to amend zoning that allows medical clinics in a business or industrial zone by special permit to include medical marijuana shops. “We’re proposing a clarification of our existing zoning,” said City Planner Lynn Duncan.

Melrose, Reading, and Wakefield, which share a public health director, started working on language to ban marijuana facilities even before the Nov. 6 election. “”We planned for this,” Dolan said. “We feel strongly it doesn’t belong in any of the communities.”

While voters voted overwhelmingly to approve medical marijuana in the Nov. 6 election, there is a fear that a dispensary located in a community could undercut local antidrug efforts.

“All three communities have active substance abuse prevention coalitions,” said Ruth Clay, director of public health for the three communities. “In Melrose, we have 11 years, and over $1 million in grant money, to work with our youth. We don’t feel that having one of these [dispensaries] in our community really fits in with our vision.”

At the Nov. 15 Wakefield Town Meeting, Police Chief Richard Smith urged residents to support the ban. He cited data showing a spike in crime and illicit drug use in other states where medical marijuana is legal.

“My concern for us as a community is to protect our property values, and more importantly, to protect our children,” Smith said.

Some parents agreed.

“If children see medical marijuana dispensaries on a street corner, their perception of risk will go down,” said Catherine Bingham, a mother of two. “They will not see [marijuana use] as risky behavior.”

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.

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