With state medical marijuana regulations set to take effect next week, most cities and towns are expected to spend the next few months to a year deciding where they plan to allow distribution centers.
At least two South Shore communities, Randolph and Norwell, have already approved zoning plans restricting medical marijuana dispensaries to areas designated for industrial use, usually on the outskirts of a town. In Freetown, similar restrictions are to be voted on at Town Meeting June 3.
But most communities have either adopted or will propose moratoriums of up to a year on distribution facilities so officials can work on zoning regulations before applications start pouring in, said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a nonprofit advocacy group for cities and towns.
“That’s what we expect to have unfold over the coming weeks and months,” Beckwith said. “Even though the [state] regulations have been adopted, there are still a number of questions as to how the process will actually work — whether all the applicants licensed to operate a facility will follow the intent of those regulations now that they’re in place.”
Massachusetts became the 18th state to legalize medical marijuana with an overwhelming 63 percent of the vote last November. The law allows the state to license up to 35 dispensaries, with at least one, but no more than five, per county.
In anticipation of the new law, Quincy city councilors debated passing zoning restrictions just days after the statewide vote, but opted instead to wait for the state regulations, said Christopher Walker, spokesman for Mayor Thomas P. Koch. The council approved a nine-month moratorium effective March 4, giving them until December to determine where to accommodate distribution centers.
“The city has the obligation to look at this the way we would look at any new business, keeping in mind this is the will of the voters, while maintaining the character of the community,” Walker said, adding that councilors have discussed limiting potential facilities to the city’s industrially zoned areas, in the same manner as adult entertainment businesses.
Voters in Dedham also approved a moratorium at Town Meeting last month through June 2014, said Town Administrator William Keegan. Town officials opted to wait until after the state’s rules were finalized before starting a discussion on zoning. Now discussions among the planning, selectmen, and health boards will begin in earnest, Keegan said.
Discussions to amend zoning rules were to begin this week in Plymouth, said Town Manager Melissa Arrighi. There is no appetite to limit dispensaries to one part of town because in such an expansive community it would not be fair, she said.
“We’re focused on being business-friendly, but we also have to be sensitive to neighborhoods, because even though it’s a medical issue . . . people don’t see it that way,” Arrighi said.
In Milton, where voters last Thursday overwhelmingly approved a moratorium until June 30, 2014, restricting where dispensaries can go will be the ultimate goal.
“Just to limit them to one area of the town is what we feel is the best way to handle it,” said Town Administrator Annemarie Fagan. “Because the regulations are so complex, we want to digest them.”
Also last week, Hanover voters said yes to a one-year moratorium, said Town Manager Troy B.G. Clarkson, adding that zoning discussions were to begin this week. Voters at Abington Town Meeting on June 10 are slated to decide on a moratorium through June 2014, but even if it is not approved, town officials plan to amend zoning rules, said Dori R. Jamieson, assistant town manager.
In Halifax, officials called a Special Town Meeting last month specifically to ask voters to approve a moratorium through June 30, 2014, but only about 70 people showed up — not enough for a quorum, said Town Administrator Charlie Seelig. Instead, the question was presented to voters at Monday’s annual Town Meeting, where it was approved on a voice vote, Seelig said.
For geographically small communities like Halifax and Avon, medical marijuana distribution centers could be automatically restricted to one part of town, if not booted out by default. State regulations prohibit dispensaries from being located within 500 feet of facilities where children congregate, such as schools.
Additionally, the more rural a community is, the less attractive it could be to someone looking to run a dispensary, “because they are far from community centers,” Beckwith, of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said.
Still, communities are right to lean toward industrial zones for medical marijuana distribution, he said.
“Industrial zones, if you take a look at it, we’re not talking about smelting plants, these are totally safe, but they’re areas that are not residential and don’t have the kind of light retail, commercial [use] that has foot traffic,” Beckwith said.
“These [distribution] facilities will not add foot traffic, except for people to pick up their marijuana,’’ he said. “You wouldn’t want them generally located in an area that would become stagnant in terms of economic development” if a dispensary opens there.