Bucking a regional trend, Norwell has become one of the first communities in Massachusetts to make zoning changes to accommodate medical marijuana dispensaries.
“We thought the time to act is now,” said Margaret Etzel, chairwoman of the Planning Board in this town of about 10,500 people.
At Town Meeting on Monday, residents approved zoning rules that will allow dispensaries to request a three-year special permit to build either within the Accord Executive Business Park or the Assinippi Industrial Park. No dispensary can be within 500 feet of a home, school, or day care.
“Norwell knew where it wanted to go in terms of location. We decided to move forward — other towns are choosing to postpone the inevitable,” said Etzel, adding the zoning board has not yet received any requests for a permit.
The actions come after November’s state vote, in which 63 percent of voters decided to allow medical marijuana for patients with certain conditions, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and AIDS.
State regulators Wednesday issued final rules for dispensaries; the regulations take effect May 24, and officials say the first registered nonprofit dispensary could open by January.
The dispensaries will cultivate, process, and provide marijuana and marijuana-infused products to qualified patients, according to the Department of Public Health, which has announced it will license up to 35 dispensaries around the state with at least one but no more than five centers per county.
Towns cannot ban dispensaries but can impose zoning restrictions on them, according to a March 13 ruling by Attorney General Martha Coakley. The “law’s purpose cannot be served if a municipality were to prohibit treatment centers within its borders, for if one municipality were allowed to do so, all could do so, making reasonable access impossible,” stated an announcement from her office.
Many towns and cities south of Boston have cited the need for additional information and adopted moratoriums — most of them for one year — on medical marijuana dispensaries.
Communities with a moratorium include Avon, Cohasset, Hanover, Hingham, Marshfield, Pembroke, Rockland, Quincy, Scituate, and Weymouth. Several others have slated votes on moratoriums.
With Monday’s vote, Norwell joins the ranks of such towns as Medfield, whose residents voted on April 29 to designate an area for medical marijuana dispensaries in an industrial part of town, and Dennis, where residents voted Tuesday to allow businesses in an industrial district by special permit.
A spokeman for the Massachusetts Municipal Association said the group isn’t tracking how communities are preparing for medical marijuana dispensaries, but said they should move now to put a moratorium or a sensible bylaw in place.
“We encourage communities to take action,” said Geoff Beckwith, association spokesman. With the recent finalization of state guidelines, he said, towns risk being surprised by an application to set up a marijuana shop in their area.
Another town moving ahead is Freetown. Though the subject is laden with moral and cultural issues, town planners must act impartially, said Robert N. Raymond, Planning Board chairman. He said the board has treated dispensaries as a legally recognized business and, as is normally done, drafted necessary zoning changes. “We as a board are not pretending to know the views of the majority of voters in Freetown.”
A bylaw that would allow dispensaries in an industrial zone on Campanelli Drive off Ridge Hill Road in Assonet will be put before voters at annual Town Meeting on June 3.
Raymond said many towns are probably using a moratorium as “a way of letting someone else open the door” for the dispensaries. He said there is no way of knowing if setting zoning in place now will be perceived as “throwing down a welcome mat” and attract a dispensary to town. “In that case, there are different ways people will view the matter. Some people might see it as a business that will bring tax money and jobs. Others will say, ‘What do you think you’re doing? I don’t want it in my town.’ It’s all very subjective,” he said.
Freetown Selectman Paul Sadeck said the board supported placing the bylaw on the June 3 warrant so voters can decide whether to act now or later. “The voters of Freetown will make a decision. I have no opinion. I’ll wait to see what the people are going to do,” he said.
When asked for comment about other towns putting in place moratoriums, he said: “That’s their problem.”
In Norwell, residents have acted in a practical and moral manner, said Etzel. “People should not be deprived of a medical treatment because towns choose to dither.”