Boston should consider banning marijuana and liquor stores from opening near addiction treatment centers, City Councilor Lydia Edwards said, prompting objections from industry groups that believe such “buffer zones” could be illegal.
Edwards has called for a hearing on whether the city should impose buffer zones around treatment centers that would prevent new alcohol and marijuana stores from opening nearby.
A proposal to open a pot shop in East Boston on the same block as a health care facility where patients wait outside to receive treatment for drug and alcohol dependence prompted Edwards to raise the issue.
“They’re going to be waiting in front of, and right next to, a recreational marijuana facility,” Edwards said at a council meeting last week, adding that she faulted the pot company for not reaching out to the treatment center sooner. “There seemed to be a lack of due diligence and a lack of understanding.”
People trying to recover from addiction deserve protection from the temptations of marijuana and alcohol, Edwards said, adding that she supported the legalization of marijuana and that Boston residents voted strongly in favor of the 2016 ballot initiative creating a commercial cannabis market.
“I would equally be concerned if a bar was opening up next to a substance abuse treatment [center], or if a liquor store was,” Edwards insisted. “I’m not trying to put in red tape or further convolute the access to this burgeoning industry, but the fights are happening, the tears are flowing, and people are tense about this. I think it’s a citywide conversation we need to have.”
State law allows municipalities to impose 500-foot buffers on marijuana facilities around K-12 schools, but it is unclear whether cities and towns are legally allowed to increase the size of such buffers or impose them around other facilities, such as addiction treatment centers.
The marijuana company cited by Edwards, Omnicann, hopes to open a retail pot shop in a two-story space that formerly housed a dry cleaning business at 24 Porter St. in East Boston. Two doors down, at 14 Porter St., the North Suffolk Mental Health Association operates an addiction treatment center; the association did not respond to requests for comment.
Map: Location of the proposed marijuana dispensary
Omnicann, which is led by Arish Halani, said it would meet with North Suffolk leaders to reassure them that the marijuana shop won’t have product displays in the windows. The company also said it would offer to work with North Suffolk, perhaps by funding one of the association’s treatment programs.
“We’d like to be a model for how a cannabis retail facility and an abuse treatment facility can coexist and maybe even help each other,” said Jim Borghesani, an Omnicann spokesman. “We just hope that North Suffolk and everybody else keeps an open mind.”
Experts said it’s unknown whether marijuana stores have a negative impact on nearby recovery centers, but noted that studies have supported keeping alcohol retailers away from “sensitive land uses” such as schools and addiction treatment centers.
“As always, there isn’t as much data as we’d like to inform policy,” said. Dr. Eden Evins, the founding director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Addiction Medicine. But, she noted, “people with alcohol and drug use disorder are often trying very hard to maintain sobriety and return to functioning better in their lives.”
Borghesani argued that there has been “no acrimonious relationship” between North Suffolk and a liquor store around the corner, and noted that state laws and regulations do not prohibit marijuana firms from siting near addiction centers.
The state Cannabis Control Commission, which regulates recreational marijuana companies, has discouraged municipalities from implementing overly restrictive zoning schemes that leave few properties available and favor wealthy, well-connected operators.
“In its local equity guidance, the commission notes that buffer zones around uses other than schools may not be legally permissible, and we suggest that such buffer zones may not be necessary,” said Shaleen Title, one of the agency’s five commissioners. “To that end, I commend the councilors for holding a hearing to gather evidence and discuss how to balance the interests of public health and entrepreneurship in a way that is legal, fair, and equitable.”
Borghesani argued that adding a buffer zone after marijuana operators have already purchased properties, would be unfair.
Robert A. Mellion, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, also took issue with the idea.
He said liquor stores are entitled to due process, and that municipalities can only ban such stores from an area if doing so is “rationally related to some legislative intent that is not arbitrary and subjective.”
“Evidence would need to be provided showing that each [liquor store] posed a threat to public safety based upon a real record,” Mellion said. Edwards’ call for a possible buffer zone around treatment centers, he added, “would likely be challenged legally.”
Boston already imposes a half-mile buffer between marijuana facilities, meant to prevent them from clustering.
But that rule, along with the opaque process City Hall uses to select which operators get local permits, has drawn criticism from advocates and city councilors. Edwards said the city should at least create a registry of potential marijuana facilities so prospective operators know whether their hoped-for locations are too close to another facility.
In East Boston, another pot firm — Berkshire Roots — has proposed a marijuana store just around the corner from North Suffolk and Omnicann. It it not yet clear whether the city will allow either pot shop to move forward.