By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — It took the Planning Board just about 15 minutes last night to decide they didn’t have enough information to weigh in on the topic of medical marijuana dispensaries.
The board had been asked by the City Council to consider a tweak to zoning laws that would specifically list marijuana dispensaries under the city’s definition of “medical clinics.” Facilities classified as medical clinics are prohibited from residential zones and require a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Massachusetts voters passed a ballot question to legalize medical marijuana in the Nov. 6 election. Medical marijuana dispensaries will be overseen by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which has yet to decide specific regulations on how the facilities would operate.
Last night, the Planning Board voted in favor of recommending that the City Council wait to change zoning laws until official regulations are created by the state.
“I’m of the opinion to hold back until we have more information,” Planning Board member Mark George said. “... My feeling is we’re premature.”
Planning Board member Tim Ready also said he preferred to wait for the state to create guidelines.
“Truly, we do not have enough data to make an intelligent decision,” Ready said. “I fail to understand why the council let the clock get started (on this topic) so early.”
The newly passed law allows for a total of 35 medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, with no more than five in each county. The centers may grow, process and provide marijuana to patients who have a prescription from a physician.
Dispensaries cannot begin to be licensed until January 2014.
Over the last month, leaders in Salem, Danvers and Peabody have begun to discuss how to handle dispensaries, if one were to come to town.
On Tuesday, Salem’s City Council discussed the zoning law change to classify medical marijuana dispensaries as medical clinics but did not take a side on the issue. The council voted to send it to the Planning Board for a recommendation.
Members of the Planning Board also sat in on Tuesday’s council meeting.
Elizabeth Rennard, Salem’s city solicitor, has said she is confident that medical marijuana dispensaries would fall under the city’s definition of a medical clinic without having to change zoning laws. Lynn Duncan, director of Salem’s Department of Planning and Community Development, echoed Rennard’s opinion at last night’s Planning Board meeting.
Rennard took a look at the issue last month at the request of City Councilor Todd Siegel. She provided councilors with language for a zoning change, if the board decided to specifically identify marijuana dispensaries as medical clinics.
If the zoning change were passed, medical marijuana clinics could apply with the ZBA to locate in any business zone in Salem. If a center came to Salem, it would have to be one of five — or less — in Essex County.
Bethany Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.