Mass. towns must seek balance in siting marijuana dispensaries

IN THE wake of the legalization of medical marijuana in Massachusetts, cities and towns are rushing to change their zoning regulations, worrying that a marijuana dispensary would create an undesirable atmosphere in their communities. Some of these local regulations make good sense, such as a Malden proposal to allow dispenseries in areas zoned for medical uses. But others could have the unintended consequence of pushing the dispensaries into little-visited corners of the state, where they might actually be more susceptible to after-hours theft and other crimes.

The new law, which voters approved by a 63-37 margin in a statewide referendum, allows for 35 centers across the state where marijuana can be grown and dispensed; the law calls for at least one, but no more than five, in any single county. Those facilities must be approved by the state Department of Public Health, which will oversee their operation.

But the promise of DPH involvement hasn’t stopped local politicians from rushing into the fray. Some are seeking to ban dispensaries altogether. Votes to do that have already happened in Saugus, Wakefield, Reading, and Peabody, while Melrose is also contemplating a ban. Others want to forbid dispensaries in downtowns or in areas that have churches, schools, or parks. Approaches like that are under consideration in Woburn and Quincy.


Before they take effect, such changes will have to be reviewed by Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office is charged with deciding whether they are consistent with the state’s constitution and laws. And she will rightly consider which of these local bans are legally out of step with a measure that was passed by a sizable majority of voters.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Cities and towns do, however, have a right to ensure that dispensaries are in appropriate locations, where patients can access them but other people aren’t disrupted by their presence. Keeping the dispensaries away from schools and other places heavily frequented by children is reasonable enough, if only to reassure parents. But it’s hard to envision a dispensary providing the same temptation to families on their way to church. Such fears seem especially overblown given that the new law carries a jail sentence for fraudulently acquiring medical marijuana.

Malden is on the right track: The ideal location for a medical-marijuana dispensary would be near hospitals, community health centers, or other medical facilities. Placing them in such areas would respect the intent of the law and the will of voters. Common sense should recommend that approach to other municipalities.