DANVERS — Selectman Keith Lucy pointed out last night that his colleague, selectmen Chairman and farmer Bill Clark, is fond of saying the town’s zoning bylaws prohibit the raising of elephants when it comes to what is allowed and not allowed in town.
So with the passage of a ballot question Nov. 6 allowing medical marijuana use, it’s more than likely that the town’s zoning bylaws will accommodate a medical marijuana treatment center before it will an elephant farm in Danvers.
While it may be an apples-to-oranges comparison, that was the flavor of the discussion in the Toomey Room of Town Hall as selectmen debated how to deal with the passage of Question 3 in last month’s election.
The board voted to direct Town Manager Wayne Marquis to have the town’s planning staff draft zoning definitions that take into account medical marijuana centers. Town Meeting would have to approve any zoning change.
“We need to be proactive,” Selectman Dan Bennett said. “We need to move ahead.”
“I am very firmly in support of finding a location for it because the voters wanted it,” Clark said. He noted that one of the leading horticultural crops in 34 states is marijuana.
“It’s up to us to find an appropriate location,” said Clark, who did not favor a dispensary near schools or near where children are.
Lucy favored a ban on marijuana dispensaries until regulations are in place governing their practices. He pointed out that the town, through zoning, can ban certain land uses. The medical marijuana law that passed last month is a state law, and federal law still bans marijuana as a controlled substance, so it might be possible a prohibition would stand, Lucy said. This was not the opinion of the rest of the board, however.
The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, removes state criminal and civil penalties for medical marijuana use for patients with certain debilitating conditions who get a written certification from a doctor. The law provides for 35 nonprofit medical marijuana treatment centers throughout the state, with no more than five in each county. The state is not required to license these treatment centers until Jan. 1, 2014, after regulations for them are drafted. Lucy also pointed out that because the centers are nonprofit, there will be no tax benefit from them.
Selectman Gardner Trask said he would like any zoning change to limit the number of centers in the town.
“Well, one is a good number,” Bennett chimed in.
Bennett told the board that some towns like Reading and Wakefield have already passed zoning bylaws that ban medical marijuana dispensaries. The Peabody City Council has also taken steps to ban them.
Bennett said the town has three options: Do nothing, prohibit dispensaries outright or find a place for them. Banning them might open up the town to legal challenges, he said.
He told selectmen that the town has received information that an organization has been eyeing Peabody and Danvers for a dispensary since April. Bennett suggested that areas presently zoned for medical uses be a good place to start, and that the downtown and the mall be off-limits. He and others said a dispensary should be required to grow its supply on-site, to avoid legal issues related to transportation.
Lucy said he spoke with the Reading town clerk, who said the town started its zoning process in the summer. Lucy also suggested that while voters in nearly every town voted in favor of medical marijuana use, many are taking a not-in-my-backyard approach. While Wakefield voters approved Question 3, the Town Meeting vote was 143-9 to ban medical marijuana dispensaries, Lucy said.
“The reality is, this is coming,” Trask said.
Trask said he does not favor putting the dispensaries in a medical zone, given that such facilities could reject them on their properties for fear of risking their licenses. Besides, Trask said, Endicott Street is too near schools, homes and businesses; the Hathorne section of town is not far from the new regional vocational school site; and the former Hunt Hospital site on Lindall Hill is surrounded by a residential neighborhood.
Peg Sallade, program director of the DanversCare prevention coalition, thanked the board for taking the step to zone marijuana dispensaries, calling it “a well-thought-out decision” to protect young people and the public.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.