By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — City officials have begun discussions on how to handle medical marijuana dispensaries, if one were to come to town.
Last night, the City Council discussed changing zoning laws to classify marijuana dispensaries as “medical clinics,” which would prohibit them from residential zones and require a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals. The council did not take a side on the issue but sent the matter to the city’s Planning Board.
The Planning Board will consider the issue and return to the City Council with a recommendation. After that, the council will vote on whether or not to adopt the zoning change.
Councilor Josh Turiel called the zoning change an “effective solution,” allowing the city to decide where dispensaries would be located on a case-by-case basis.
The issue is on the Planning Board’s meeting agenda for tomorrow night. The board will meet at 7 at the City Hall Annex, room 313, 120 Washington St.
Members of the Planning Board also sat in on last night’s council meeting.
Salem is the latest North Shore community to discuss medical pot shops, after Massachusetts voters passed a ballot question to legalize medical marijuana in the Nov. 6 election.
The Peabody City Council has moved toward banning dispensaries in that city. Danvers selectmen also discussed the issue last night (see related story).
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.
None will be licensed until January 2014, said Elizabeth Rennard, Salem’s city solicitor.
In a Nov. 15 letter to the City Council, Rennard said she is confident that medical marijuana dispensaries would fall under the city’s definition of a medical clinic, therefore requiring ZBA approval.
However, Rennard also drafted a zoning change for councilors, if the board decided to specifically identify marijuana dispensaries as medical clinics.
If the zoning change is 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.
Councilor Paul Prevey questioned the logistics of how a dispensary would operate and how it would be managed.
Rennard said dispensaries will be overseen by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which has yet to decide specific regulations.
“I’m not prepared to support this tonight. Maybe at some point down the road,” Carr said.
Councilor Joseph O’Keefe also said he preferred to wait for specifics from the state before changing local zoning laws.
Teri Kalgren, owner of Artemisia Botanicals on Hawthorne Boulevard, said she has many customers dealing with pain from medical issues, such as Parkinson’s disease, who could benefit from medical marijuana.
These are people, many of them senior citizens, who would not be “gatewayed” into other drugs, Kalgren told the council.
“Our main concern should not be the people that are going (to the dispensary),” Kalgren said. “The main thing we should be looking at is the responsibility of the doctors who are giving out prescriptions.”
Medical marijuana was approved by 63 percent of voters in the November election.
Similarly, Salem’s zoning of medical clinics came into play when a methadone clinic was proposed at the former Hillcrest Chevrolet dealership on Highland Avenue in 2010.
The ZBA 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.
Bethany Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.