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Cities rezoning for marijuana law

While officials in Lynn, Melrose, and Peabody have voted to ban dispensaries in their cities, mayors in Malden, Newburyport, and Somerville have indicated a willingness to respect the November vote that legalized medical marijuana in the state and are preparing to zone locations in appropriate areas.

In the aftermath of Attorney General Martha Coakley’s March ruling that Wakefield could not ban medical marijuana dispensaries, several cities and towns north of Boston have elected to pass moratoriums that will allow them up to a year to zone where the shops could operate.

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In January, the Malden City Council approved zoning changes to restrict dispensaries and businesses where prescription cards for marijuana can be obtained to industrial areas of the city.

“We were able to strike a balance by enacting an ordinance that protects public safety while preserving the intent of the state ballot question that was approved by voters,” said Mayor Gary Christenson.

“The ordinance creates a ‘use’ category complete with a new definition, dimensional controls, and parking and loading requirements that will govern the establishment of medical marijuana treatment centers in certain areas,” the mayor added..

“We believe we have crafted a solution that does not impose an outright ban as we have seen in other communities, but serves to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the community.”

In Somerville, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone said he would not oppose a medical marijuana dispensary if it were sited in the right neighborhood.

‘I’m adamantly opposed to medical marijuana dispensaries in Peabody. However, the final decision will not be with me, it would be with City Council. I would not in any form or manner support an application for such a business.’

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He expects the Board of Aldermen to enact a moratorium later this month so the city can create zoning laws for a potential dispensary.

“I support the use of medical marijuana and this community supports it, and the voters spoke loudly and clearly,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that the majority of the people of the community would want the planning and the siting of a facility to be done in a strategic and a smart way.”

Newburyport Mayor Donna D. Holaday said a moratorium was needed in Newburyport in order for the city to properly designate an area if a dispensary opened.

To date, two companies have contacted Holaday and expressed interest in opening a dispensary in Newburyport.

Holaday’s preference would be for a local hospital to dispense the marijuana, but none have stepped forward.

She sees little economic benefit to the city if a dispensary were to open, but said it could serve as “a social benefit” for people who have been diagnosed with illnesses that meet the criteria for marijuana prescriptions.

“We need time,” said Holaday. “We’ve had two potential companies come in who were really gung ho about moving this forward. It’s new — and granted we had very strong support of medical marijuana in our local vote — we have to figure this out. There’s concern about where it be sited and about safety.”

The law passed in November allows up to 35 dispensaries to be established, with at least one — and as many as five — in each of the state’s 14 counties.

Towns adopting moratoriums to set bylaws addressing marijuana dispensaries must submit their proposals to the state attorney general for review. The attorney general then has 90 days to decide whether the proposed amendments are consistent with the state law.

So far, Burlington, Lynnfield, Stoneham, Topsfield, and Wakefield are among the 12 towns statewide that have applied for and been granted moratoriums. Tewksbury and Wilmington have applied for moratoriums and will hear by Aug. 20 if they will be granted, according to the attorney general’s office. A total of 35 towns are awaiting approval.

Other towns that are working on moratoriums include Billerica, Danvers, Ipswich, Middleton, Reading, and North Reading. The Woburn City Council approved a one-year moratorium in February.

“It gives us time to think about how to deal with medical marijuana treatment centers if we have to deal with them at all,” said Thomas Mullen, town counsel in Wakefield, who added the town has appealed Coakley’s ruling against banning the dispensaries in court.

Mullen believes the town should not be forced to allow the sale of marijuana.

“It deeply disturbs the selectmen that they are being asked to not just tolerate but facilitate an activity that remains illegal under federal law,” said Mullen.

Bill Downing, treasurer of The Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, said the moratoriums – along with the attempt by communities to try to implement an outright ban on the dispensaries – work against public opinion.

He said the moratoriums are rooted in “fear and propaganda” and are passed by small percentages of voters – such as town meetings or by city council members — and are not reflective of the general electorate.

Ultimately, he said, local politicians are behind the organized delays.

“A lot of politicians believe they can get mileage from being drug lords,” he said. “They exploit the issue and they use fear and the fear of drugs in order to further their own careers.”

In Lynn, Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy vetoed the City Council’s decision to ban the dispensaries, but the council then voted to override the veto in February. Still, city officials are recognizing it may be impossible to enforce an outright ban, and are zoning an industrial area on Western Avenue for a possible dispensary.

“I believe that such an outright prohibition would be found to be unconstitutional,” Kennedy wrote to the council in support of her veto. “But even if these restrictions were to pass constitutional muster, I suggest they fly in the face of the expressed preference of the voters.”

While the attorney general does not have direct jurisdiction over city bylaws, at least two — Melrose and Peabody — are softening their stances because of Coakley’s March statement that “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 Peabody City Council passed a ban in January, but Mayor Ted Bettencourt said last week that anyone interested in opening a dispensary in Peabody must submit an application that will be voted on by the City Council.

“I’m adamantly opposed to medical marijuana dispensaries in Peabody. However, the final decision will not be with me, it would be with City Council,” he said. “I would not in any form or manner support an application for such a business.

“My position has been that medical marijuana should be handled through medical providers. We have two hospitals in the city and I would be supportive of medical marijuana being dispensed through those hospitals and pharmacies, but I’m opposed to opening up a pot shop within the city limits.”

The Melrose Board of Aldermen also voted to ban dispensaries in the city in January, but is now considering a moratorium on the dispensaries instead.

“Given the attorney general’s determination, it would probably be prudent to take a different approach,” said Melrose City Planner Denise Gaffey.

According to the Department of Public Health, a patient must obtain written certification from a physician for a debilitating medical condition. David Kibbe, a department spokesman, said applications by companies seeking to open medical marijuana dispensaries would be vetted by the state in the summer and fall.

Companies will be chosen by the end of the year, and could open dispensaries by late December.

 They would pay a $50,000 annual registration fee to the state plus a local fee in some cases, Kibbe said.

“One of the factors we would consider as we evaluate applications is if there is local support for that application,” Kibbe said.

Meanwhile, doctors are already advertising to see patients in Danvers, Malden, Methuen, and Woburn to guide them through the process of receiving marijuana legally.

Beginning on Jan. 1, the state began to allow doctors to evaluate patients who were interested in using medical marijuana, according to the Department of Public Health.

Doctors can issue recommendations for patients, which will serve as temporary registration cards until the state begins to issue cards later this year.

According to the law, those receiving doctor’s recommendations are allowed “to cultivate his or her own limited supply of marijuana during this period.” The law does not specify how much a person can grow.

Globe correspondent Terri Ogan contributed to this report. Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@
globe.com
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