BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — Peabody is the first local community to try to stop medical pot shops from locating here, but it may not be the last.
Local cities and towns are struggling to prepare for the new medical marijuana law, approved by a state ballot question last month. Some North Shore officials think it may be better to zone the dispensaries than to ban them, while others are taking a wait-and-see approach. No one is sure yet just what the law will allow them to do or whether a ban would even be legal.
Danvers Selectman Dan Bennett sums up the quandary that many local leaders find themselves in.
“I would not be in favor of one (a marijuana shop) in downtown Danvers where middle school students congregate,” Bennett said. But, “the voters wanted it, so I can’t see prohibiting it.”
Danvers has an adult zone on Route 1 for those uses, but whether dispensaries for medical marijuana could be zoned in a similar way “remains to be seen,” Bennett said.
Danvers selectmen are scheduled to discuss the issue at their regular meeting tomorrow night.
Salem also will tackle the issue tomorrow, when the City Council and Planning Board hold a joint public hearing on the issue. The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the council chamber at City Hall.
City leaders will discuss a proposal to classify medical marijuana treatment centers as medical clinics, allowing the city to regulate them by special permit through the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The new state law, scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, was approved by 63 percent of voters in the November election. It will remove criminal and civil penalties for medical marijuana use by patients with debilitating medical conditions such as cancer or multiple sclerosis. Such patients must get a written certification from their doctor that they would benefit from marijuana use.
The law provides for the creation of 35 nonprofit medical marijuana treatment centers throughout the state. These centers would be allowed “to grow, process and provide marijuana to patients or their caregivers.” Centers will have to register with the state Department of Public Health. The allows for at least one, but no more than five, centers in each county.
At the behest of Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt, the Peabody City Council last week approved a measure that begins the process of banning such centers in Peabody, though some councilors expressed concern that an outright ban might open the city up to lawsuits.
Matt Allen, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, which advocates for safe access to medical marijuana, would like to see cities and towns wait for regulations to be issued before deciding how to deal with dispensaries.
“The state is not required to license treatment centers until January 2014 — eight months after regulations are written,” Allen said in an email. “This will give municipalities ample time to consider any issues that are not addressed by rules and regulations.”
Salem police Chief Paul Tucker said he has spoken with City Solicitor Beth Rennard about how the city might handle a request to site such a facility in Salem. “It’s legally defensible” for the city to require one to get a special permit, Tucker said, similar to the way the city requires one for clinics and health care facilities in general.
Lynn Duncan, the Salem director of planning and community development, said the city already has zoning rules that apply to medical clinics, which must get a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
It was this process that played out when a methadone clinic was proposed at the former Hillcrest Chevrolet dealership on Highland Avenue, Duncan noted. The Appeals Board denied the clinic a permit due to concerns about traffic at peak hours, with the high school and other schools not far from the proposed clinic. Clinic backers filed suit, but eventually dropped their challenge.
“Our city solicitor’s opinion is we cannot ban this use,” Duncan said of marijuana treatment centers. The next best thing, she said, is to control where they go.
In Danvers, Bennett said Town Manager Wayne Marquis has contacted town counsel at the request of the Board of Selectmen.
Bennett said town counsel suggested the town wait and see how the regulations play out.
“I would like the board to discuss it and give the town manager a direction to go in,” Bennett said.
Beverly has yet to take a stance on medical marijuana treatment centers.
“I’m really expecting we are going to get some guidance from the state, and I’m sort of waiting on that,” Beverly Mayor Bill Scanlon said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.