, Salem, MA

March 20, 2013

Mayor mulls pot ban options

Bettencourt: Moratorium, zoning regulations are alternatives to consider

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — A moratorium on medical marijuana facilities in Peabody might be an alternative to the outright ban that appears to have been shot down by Attorney General Martha Coakley, according to Mayor Ted Bettencourt.

That ban passed by the City Council in January would seem to be a dead letter following a ruling last week by Coakley disallowing a similar ordinance in the town of Wakefield.

“The Peabody ordinance was not struck down,” Bettencourt noted, but he acknowledged that his city’s ordinance is very much like Wakefield’s.

“We will look at our legal options and make a decision,” the mayor said. He added that when he saw Coakley’s ruling, he immediately turned the matter over to the city’s lawyers. Even so, he’s already considering alternatives.

“Other cities and towns have put in place a moratorium that would not allow any pot shops to locate until all the regulations are decided,” he said.

Citing confusion in the law, which was passed by an initiative petition last November, officials have hoped that the Legislature would take action to clarify it. For example, some have pointed to the lack of an age limit for those claiming they require the drug.

“People don’t know what to expect from the law,” Bettencourt said.

In addition to a moratorium, the mayor speculated that the City Council could pass zoning regulations limiting the placement of medical marijuana facilities to certain areas.

In her decision, Coakley reasoned that the outright ban was illegal because if established in all the cities and towns of the commonwealth, it would have the effect of negating the state law, which limits the number of such shops statewide to 35.

The Peabody ban was initially promoted by the mayor, who offers no apologies now.

“I felt the action we took was the best thing for the city,” Bettencourt said. “I stand by my decision. I stand by my action.”

“We will refer this to City Solicitor Mike Smerczynski,” City Council President Tom Gould said, “and have him help us on where we go now.”

Peabody officials report that they have already been approached by multiple agents interested in setting up a marijuana facility in the city. Its location at the nexus of several major highways makes it a prime candidate for such operations.

The fact that the offers do not come from medical professionals has disillusioned even some supporters of the medical marijuana law. City Councilor Arthur Athas, for example, has more than once expressed surprise that the distribution isn’t being done from a hospital. The supposed purpose of the law is to provide a drug that will reduce the pain and discomfort of some serious illnesses.

Some see the law as a backdoor effort to legalize marijuana.

Some councilors have expressed reluctance to see a marijuana store located among the strip clubs and adult bookstore on Route 1.

A moratorium could be a method of chasing away the shops altogether. Councilors mused aloud during discussions of the initial ban that putting roadblocks in front of would-be pot shop owners, even roadblocks that might prove unsustainable in court, would be enough in some cases to send eager applicants elsewhere.

Jim Liacos offered the example of a Hooters restaurant, which encountered opposition during an attempt to open on Route 1 in Peabody. That was enough to send them down the road to Saugus.