As a tool for change, ballot questions like the one approving the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes in Massachusetts are blunt instruments. The questions are generally written in such a way that they take on the larger question — whether medical marijuana should be legal — without adequately addressing smaller details such as how the drug would be administered, by whom and where.
The Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns across the state, is calling for a six-month delay in the law to give state and local governments a chance to develop a fair, clear and coordinated set of rules. Given the details still to be worked out, extending the deadline by a half-year seems like a good idea. Delaying implementation any longer, however, would usurp the will of the voters.
The law calls for as many as 35 marijuana dispensaries to be set up next year, with at least one but no more than five in each county. The state Department of Public Health will be in charge of regulating medical marijuana and deciding on such details as how the dispensaries will operate, how much pot they can dispense and where the drug will come from. Under the legislation approved by voters last month, the rules are supposed to be in place by April.
Local officials, including those in Peabody, Danvers and Salem, have already begun grappling with the question of where to put the dispensaries in their communities; Peabody may attempt to ban them outright.
Such a move may backfire on Peabody. Not only would an outright ban likely face an expensive legal challenge, it would also be a slap in the face of the more than 14,000 city residents who voted in favor of medical marijuana (the measure passed 57 percent to 43 percent in the Tanner City).
It’s not that we disagree with Peabody officials’ displeasure over the outcome of last month’s election. We editorialized against the ballot question in this space, feeling the law as proposed was too vague and would likely lead to a push to legalize marijuana use in all instances in the near future.
Voters, however, disagreed. The ballot question passed with 63 percent of the vote and earned the approval of citizens in every North Shore city and town. The voters have spoken, and now the challenge is how to turn their will into action.
So it’s good that local officials have begun to consider the effects of last month’s vote on their communities, and it’s wise to start thinking about zoning laws that would offer some control over where dispensaries could be located. But it would also be wise to follow the lead of the Salem Planning Board and hold off making final rulings until the Department of Public Health finishes its work on the subject. There are simply still too many questions that need to be answered by DPH officials.
“I’m of the opinion to hold back until we have more information,” Planning Board member Mark George said at Thursday’s meeting. “My feeling is we’re premature.”
For its part, the state is still at the early stage of its work on the issue.
“The department will work closely with health care and public safety officials to develop smart and balanced policies and procedures over the coming months,” Lauren Smith, interim commissioner for the Department of Public Health, said in a statement to The Salem News last month. “We will work carefully, learn from other states’ experiences and put a system in place that is right for Massachusetts.”
Another six months is not too long to wait to make sure the job is done correctly.