While most south suburbs are wary of marijuana dispensaries, at least three towns in this area have signaled they might welcome such facilities in their community.
Since Massachusetts residents voted overwhelmingly in November to legalize medical marijuana, most municipalities have opted for a moratorium of up to a year on the new law that requires zoning rules be established this spring to allow for medical marijuana dispensaries. The law, approved by 63 percent of voters, allows the state to license up to 35 dispensaries, with at least one — but no more than five — per county.
Norwell and Randolph are ahead of the curve: Each has formulated new zoning to allow for such facilities while restricting them to certain areas of town. Freetown could follow, if voters agree with the local Planning Board’s recommendation at Town Meeting Monday.
“The Planning Board wanted to be proactive by considering what is in the best interest of the town now,” said Lauren Moreau, Freetown’s planning technician. “By adopting a moratorium, we’d just have to address the same issue in 12 months.”
But many other communities welcome the extra time, said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, an advocacy group for cities and towns.
“There are still questions about how the law will actually work, so a moratorium will give communities time to figure out what to do with their own ordinances and bylaws and to see how the regulations are being interpreted elsewhere,” he said.
Officials in communities waiting to take action have said that because of the law’s complexity, they want to see additional state regulations implemented before they take action at the local level. Some have also privately said they hope enough other communities will make zoning amendments to allow dispensaries that the per-county cap will be realized.
While a moratorium buys a municipality additional time, the city or town cannot impose an outright ban of dispensaries, said Beckwith.
“When Wakefield tried to do a total ban, the attorney general ruled that it wasn’t allowed, as it would stymie the law,” he said. “The AG said communities do have power to regulate where [dispensaries] are located, but they cannot ban them.”
Many law enforcement officials have advocated for the moratorium, saying they are concerned about regulation of dispensaries and about legally sold pot being used for recreational purposes.
Freetown Police Chief Carlton Abbott Jr. recommended a temporary ban so that the town could gather additional information and work with state officials.
“I told the Planning Board that I thought it would be more prudent to proceed cautiously,” Abbott said. “The regulations were just finalized, and we haven’t had the time to look through and decipher them to see what the impact would be on our town.”
But despite his recommendation, the Planning Board voted to place an article on Monday’s Town Meeting warrant proposing to allow a medical marijuana dispensary or treatment center in the Industrial II area of town known as Assonet Village, next to Route 24.
Randolph Town Council, meanwhile, voted in early May to adopt zoning regulations and restrictions that allow for medical marijuana facilities in the Pacella Park industrial district in the northern part of town.
“This way, we have something in place should any applicants who are approved by the state come forward,” said Town Planner Michelle Tyler. She said that while there have been inquiries, nobody has applied for a permit.
And even though the council voted in favor of the zoning restrictions, it is taking another look at them and may seek a delay like most of the other communities south of Boston.
Also in early May, voters in Norwell approved zoning changes to allow medical marijuana facilities in the town’s industrial parks. Those seeking to grow, process, and sell marijuana to patients who have received their doctor’s approval must obtain a three-year special permit from the town’s zoning board.
Judy Ockerbloom, of the town building department and zoning office, said that while there have been several phone calls, no one has applied for a permit to open a dispensary.
Norwell Police Chief Ted Ross said there was a “thorough vetting out” with town boards over the zoning regulations and many recommendations and safeguards were put into place.
Norwell and other municipalities are looking to the state Department of Public Health for guidance — especially with regard to siting a facility. State regulations require that the location of each dispensary comply with all local requirements. But if no local requirements exist, the state regulations stipulate that a facility shall not “be sited within a radius of 500 feet of a school, day care center, or any facility in which children commonly congregate.”
“I think there is a tremendous learning curve here for the entire state,” said Ross. “It is incumbent upon all of us to learn more about it and what the repercussions will be for everybody.”
Beckwith said it is important to note that just because a community is zoned for medical marijuana dispensaries, it doesn’t mean a facility will set up shop in that community.
“The US Supreme Court said that communities could not ban adult entertainment, so almost every community has an area zoned for adult entertainment,” he said. “But even though they can have it, not every community does. While the two issues are different, in both it’s a case of creating a framework in which the community’s interest is being protected.”Juliet Pennington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.