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Not in my backyard: Mass. communities hope to shut out local pot shops

Supporters of the ballot question to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts celebrated as returns came in.John Blanding/Globe Staff

A number of cities and towns are exploring ways to limit or even snuff out marijuana shops in their communities, less than a week after voters legalized the drug for recreational use in Massachusetts.

Some local officials worry that a profusion of marijuana stores will turn quaint New England downtowns into drug havens. Others are concerned the shops will crowd along the New Hampshire state line, luring unwanted out-of-state customers and clogging the streets with impaired drivers.

“I’m dead set against it,” said Mayor Stephen N. Zanni of Methuen, who wants to ban marijuana retailers from opening in his city, where 52 percent of local voters opposed the ballot question. “I don’t think it’s an appropriate fit here for our community.”


The emerging rebellion has marijuana advocates worried that municipal officials are acting rashly to restrain sales of the drug, even though voters statewide just approved Question 4 by a decisive 54 percent to 46 percent.

“I would not want to see a handful of town officials controvert the vote of the people of Massachusetts,” said Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the legalization campaign. “What we don’t support is rushing out of the gate out of paranoia and hysteria.”

Under the law, recreational use of the drug will become legal on Dec. 15, and marijuana shops can open in January 2018.

But the law also gives cities and towns several options to push back.

It allows communities to ban marijuana shops through local referendums. Local officials may also adopt rules that limit the number of shops to 20 percent of the number of liquor stores in their community. In addition, communities can restrict the shops’ location, hours, and signage.

The communities’ reluctance to embrace marijuana retail operations follows a call by Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, the state’s top regulator, for lawmakers to extend the deadline for opening retail shops beyond January 2018 so she has time to build an effective oversight force.


Mayor Thomas P. Koch of Quincy, who opposed legalization, indicated that he is open to launching a local ballot question to ban marijuana shops, even though voters in his city approved Question 4 by 51 percent to 49 percent, said Chris Walker, a spokesman.

“The mayor’s never shied away from difficult decisions,” Walker said. “If he feels it’s in the best interests of the city to put it back before the voters, then he’s certainly going to do that. He thinks a more robust dialogue about the implications could have a different result locally.”

Walker said the mayor has also asked his legal team to look at zoning rules that could limit the location of marijuana shops — a less drastic approach many cities and towns are expected to explore.

In Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh has asked city officials who oversee public health, public safety, and other areas to review the impact of the law. Walsh opposed Question 4, but it passed with the support of 62 percent of Boston voters.

“While the mayor did not support the legalization of recreational marijuana, he respects the will of the voters and will make sure the law is implemented in a way that best serves the city of Boston and its residents,” said Bonnie McGilpin, a Walsh spokeswoman.

A local ban might be an easier sell in communities where voters opposed Question 4. Opposition was strongest on the South Shore, Cape Cod, and in parts of the Merrimack Valley and Central Massachusetts.


In Braintree, Mayor Joseph Sullivan said he is looking at several options, including trying to opt out of the law through a local ballot question. Voters in his city opposed Question 4 by 54 percent to 46 percent.

“We’re essentially forced into this despite the fact that we said ‘No,’ ” Sullivan said.

Jason Brown, chairman of the Norwell selectmen, said a local ban may also make sense in his town, where 55 percent of voters opposed Question 4.

“Recreational use failed in the town, and my sense is residents don’t want to see marijuana shops around town,” Brown said. “I don’t think I’m going out on a limb saying that.”

Mayor Ken Gray of Amesbury said he is concerned that a cluster of marijuana shops will open in his city on the New Hampshire line, luring customers just as New Hampshire fireworks shops attract buyers from Massachusetts.

“Fireworks are one thing; marijuana is another,” said Gray, who supported Question 4. “I’m concerned with how it affects our quality of life in the city.” He said that rather than seek a local ban, however, he would look to limit the location and number of shops. “My sense is to try to be pragmatic about it,” he said.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns and opposed Question 4, said local officials are grappling with a range of thorny questions, ranging from how to regulate and tax the drug to how to educate students about the dangers of marijuana.


“I think there clearly will be growing concern and focus at the municipal level, and more and more communities will be looking for these issues to be addressed,” he said.

He said he is concerned that, even if local officials can place a ban on the ballot, they will be outspent by deep-pocketed national advocates of marijuana.

Proponents outspent opponents by 2 to 1 on Question 4.

“The whole referendum question is fraught with problems that completely tip the scales toward the commercial marijuana industry and against the ability of communities to say ‘no’ if they don’t want a pot shop,” Beckwith said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter@mlevenson.