The legalization of medical marijuana is prompting cities and towns across the region to consider zoning restrictions to limit where dispensaries may open.
With state regulations in effect as of Friday, and the dispensary application process scheduled by the state for this summer and fall, many communities are feeling time is short to regulate what some see as an unwelcome neighbor.
Milford passed zoning restrictions last week; Framingham and Natick are looking at working together on zoning that could allow dispensaries on Route 9 in the neighboring towns; and Newton, amid several inquiries from prospective dispensary operators, is reviewing its zoning bylaw to see whether it is adequate for dealing with the new state law.
“What we’re doing is actually taking some time to internally review the regulations, since they still just came out, and we have not made any specific plans to alter the usual zoning requirements for new businesses, but we are looking into it,” said Dori Zaleznik, Newton’s commissioner of health and human services.
Massachusetts voters approved the legalization of medical marijuana via statewide ballot in November. The measure calls for a maximum of 35 nonprofit dispensaries across the state, with at least one and not more than five in each of the state’s 14 counties.
Communities cannot ban dispensaries but can impose zoning laws that restrict their location, according to a March 13 ruling from Attorney General Martha Coakley.
Many municipalities have already passed or are considering a moratorium — typically lasting from six months to a year — on permits for a dispensary to buy time for reviewing their zoning regulations.
Milford decided it did not need a moratorium and went straight to zoning changes, approved by Town Meeting on May 20.
The amendment, which must still pass muster with the attorney general’s office, allows dispensaries in two of the town’s three industrial districts as long as they are not within 200 feet of a residential zone, school, place of worship, park, playground, or youth center.
The limitation translates into about 1,000 acres along Fortune Boulevard and Maple and Beaver streets available as the site of a dispensary, according to Larry Dunkin, Milford’s town planner.
Natick has already passed a moratorium,and Framingham’s Town Meeting was considering one this week.
Both communities are looking at allowing dispensaries along some part of Route 9.
Robert Halpin, Framingham’s town manager, said the moratorium would give his community some time to get a better sense of the regulations and how they are being implemented.
“I think there’s a discussion to be had with Natick,” he said. “We can talk about Route 9 and other approaches.”
Natick Town Administrator Martha White said it makes sense to work with Framingham on a shared approach.
“Since we share Route 9, and that may well be the area that’s zoned for these facilities, we want to be sure to keep each other’s communities informed and to work it out together, so we’re not negatively impacting each other,” she said.
Although many municipalities in the area see a moratorium as a first step before evaluating their zoning options, Newton is not sure that one is necessary.
“So at this point, we don’t believe we’ll need a moratorium, but we don’t know as we go through the review what we’ll end up doing,” said Zaleznik.
When the city gets inquiries, she said, staff are telling prospective dispensary operators that they should get through the first phase of the state’s two-phase application process before they look for a location in Newton.
“And hopefully by then, we will have figured out our approach,” said Zaleznik.
Despite the local moves to limit dispensaries, which by law are supposed to cultivate their own marijuana to fill prescriptions for the drug, prospective proprietors are not put off, said Bruce Bedrick, CEO of Kind Clinics and MEDBOX, based in West Hollywood, Calif.
“We’re used to that — it’s all part of the process,” said Bedrick, who serves as a consultant for the application process and also markets his technology to keep marijuana supplies secure. “People have to get comfortable with the use. Once people realize it’s just average everyday people trying to pick up medicine, I think in a few years we’ll all look back and laugh at this.”
Bedrick, whose local office is in Natick, would not say exactly how many clients he has or where they are looking to locate a dispensary, but he suggested interest is healthy, with “not many spots left” on his client roster that will max out at 35.
He praised the state Department of Public Health, and said generally the new regulations are solid.
“It’s actually great for our clients because we’re all about transparency and regulation and safety and security,” he said. “The only thing we feel is cumbersome is the verification of $500,000.” He was referring to the minimum amount that applicants must have in escrow as part of the new regulations.
Adam Fine, a lawyer with a Colorado-based firm, Vicente Sederberg LLC, that opened offices in Boston and Needham in connection with last fall’s legalization vote, also applauded the state for creating a strong regulatory environment that balances patient needs with public safety concerns.
“I think overall people are very pleased with the comprehensive nature of the regulations and the fact the Department of Public Health took a measured, thoughtful approach,” he said.
Like Bedrick, Fine could not say which towns and cities are being eyed for dispensaries, but he did say Middlesex, Norfolk, and Suffolk counties seem to be garnering the most interest.
“The anecdotal information I’m getting is the most populous areas make the most sense because there will be more patients to serve,” he said.
Locally, one of the biggest issues that dispensaries will face might have nothing to do with zoning or moratoriums, but rather finding space to lease, he said. Part of his firm’s role is to help educate landlords, Fine said.
“Finding a location that is going to be able to house these dispensaries can be a challenge,” he said. “There are landlords that . . . until it’s completely legal under federal law, they don’t want to be a part of it.”