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Needham considers delay on marijuana dispensaries

In Seattle, Jake Dimmock waters young plants at his medical marijuana dispensary.

Associated Press Photos/Ted S. Warren

In Seattle, Jake Dimmock waters young plants at his medical marijuana dispensary.

Needham officials may seek a moratorium on the distribution and cultivation of medical marijuana in town, citing a lack of guidance from state health officials on how it should be regulated.

“It is very clear to us that the voters have spoken,” Jane Fogg, a member of the Needham Board of Health, told selectmen Tuesday night. “What’s also very clear to us is we have a responsibility to do this safely and properly. We’ve all been suffering from a lack of clear direction from the state.”

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Massachusetts residents voted in November to legalize the use of medical marijuana for patients suffering from diseases such as cancer, AIDS, and Crohn’s disease. It allows up to 35 medical marijuana dispensaries to open in the state, and also allows some patients to cultivate their own marijuana.

The law technically took effect on Jan. 1, but the state Department of Public Health has 120 days to write regulations to guide its implementation.

Officials in Needham say that without those state regulations, they cannot proceed with writing zoning regulations to control where dispensaries could be located. However, a moratorium would have to be approved by Town Meeting. 

“The key thing is the siting of the dispensaries,” said Daniel Matthews, a member of the Board of Selectmen. “That’s the thing people are concerned about, and the [Department of Public Health] guidance says nothing about siting. And the statute is ambiguous. . . The idea of a moratorium is simply to say, we will not have any siting until we get some clarification from the state.”

Other towns are struggling with the same questions as Needham. In Burlington, the Planning Board recently voted to recommend to Town Meeting a moratorium on dispensary applications until June 30, 2014, according to Assistant Planner Don Benjamin. 

‘The idea of a moratorium is simply to say, we will not have any siting until we get some clarification from the state.’

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“We need to see what the state Department of Public Health has to say in the way of recommendations, and then do community planning around those recommendations,” Benjamin said. “We feel like there’s too much uncertainty right now.”

In Needham, officials are considering a moratorium of six to 12 months. The town manager will make a recommendation to selectmen at their next meeting, Matthews said. Selectmen will then decide whether to ask the Planning Board to draft a proposed moratorium to present at Town Meeting.

Town Meeting may also be deciding on a bylaw, proposed by the Board of Health and the Police Department, that would impose a $200 fine on anyone caught smoking marijuana in public, in addition to the $100 fine that exists for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.

The Board of Selectmen has yet to take a position on the measure. Selectmen generally spoke in favor of the moratorium Tuesday night, though opinions differed over how long it should be.

“I think that the town government’s approach to this is to take a go-slow approach,” said Matthews. “The voters cast their votes for the principle, but not necessarily some of the details. Making sure those details are done the right way is the job of town government.”

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com.
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