By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — Answering an appeal from Mayor Ted Bettencourt, the City Council overwhelmingly approved a measure last night that begins the process of forbidding any marijuana dispensaries or growing facilities in this city.
The meeting reflected a great deal of frustration and doubt by councilors regarding the recent passage of an initiative petition allowing the sale of the drug when prescribed by a physician.
No one spoke in support of locating marijuana facilities in Peabody, but some worried that banning them outright, rather than restricting them to the adult zone, might open the door to lawsuits. Legal action, they fear, could eventually allow the pot shops in places like the downtown by judicial fiat.
For that matter, Councilor Barry Sinewitz worried about the impact of placing them on Route 1, the adult zone, which he complained already contains strip clubs, X-rated bookstores, a methadone clinic and a pool hall.
“It’s almost becoming a Disneyland for all sorts of degenerate behavior,” he said.
Bettencourt presented his plan for banning the facilities before the council’s Legal Affairs Subcommittee at a meeting that attracted nearly all the councilors, as well as New England Cable News. He complained that passage of the referendum left too many unanswered questions.
“Who is going to write the rules?” he asked. “Who is going to enforce the rules?” Will there be background checks? What role do doctors play? “These unanswered questions and concerns to me are a public safety issue.”
He told them that City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski is confident that the city has the legal right to issue a blanket restriction preventing the location of marijuana facilities in the city.
The new law allows the placement of 35 facilities statewide. Councilor Dave Gamache worried aloud about a “mad rush” to locate them come Jan. 1. Several councilors mentioned being approached prior to the meeting by people eager to set up pot shops in Peabody. One, Sinewitz said, had assured him of 7,900 customers already awaiting the opening.
Gamache had initially proposed containing any such shop to the adult zone, but he abandoned that plan to support the mayor. He reasoned that if the city’s prohibition was shot down in the court, the city could then institute zoning. “We would get a second bite of the apple.”
Further, Gamache referenced a meeting with police Chief Robert Champagne, who he said advised that people hoping to operate marijuana dispensaries would likely quickly bypass cities that resist. If the path to Peabody is quickly blocked, Gamache suggested, they will go to cities like Salem or towns like Boxford instead.
“This is an issue where we need to be proactive,” the mayor agreed.
The councilor’s deeper misgivings became more apparent during a session of the full council later in the evening.
Member Arthur Athas seemed to regret his support for the ballot measure as he had believed that the drug would be dispensed in pharmacies.
“Perhaps I was naive,” he said.
In the same vein, Councilor Rico Mello wondered at a drug regime where there has been no testing and the drugs are dispensed with no reliable method of gauging their strength.
“I hear this is some kind of medical facility,” he said. “It’s ludicrous.”
In five years, Sinewitz predicted, will come a push for fully legalizing the drug. “This is about legalizing marijuana. Let’s not kid ourselves.”
Council President Jim Liacos said that his mind was made up by his sons, who have lived in Colorado and California, which have both passed similar laws. “They said, ‘Dad, it’s a joke.’ Both states are just smoking pot everywhere. Every strip mall has little shop.”
Councilor Anne Manning-Martin saw the board’s role as adopting the referendum to the requirements of the community. “That’s been left to us.”
The only no vote among the 11 councilors was Bob Driscoll, who worried that the city might be acting too quickly and that the state may yet produce some clarification in the meantime. “I’d like to have more information.”
The measure goes next to a joint hearing at the end of December including the Planning Board and the council.
For good measure, at the urging of Athas, the council also passed a measure instructing city departments not to approve any marijuana facilities in the interim.