By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — Now that Massachusetts voters have approved the legalization of medical marijuana, it’s now up to local communities to figure out how they’re going to deal with the new “pot shops” that will eventually start popping up in the area.
The newly passed law will allow up to 35 medical marijuana dispensaries to be opened in the state, with at least one, but no more than five, per county. As a result, many local communities, including Newburyport, have begun discussing amendments to their zoning regulations that would restrict where the dispensaries can and can’t be opened.
Amesbury Mayor Thatcher Kezer said he has discussed the issue with the other members of the Merrimack Valley Mayors and Managers Coalition, and the consensus they reached was that the best course of action for now would be to have their planners look at the situation and determine what the best course of action would be.
“I know some communities have jumped out ahead on this issue, and I’m happy to let them take the lead,” Kezer said. “What I’ve asked my folks is let’s take a look at it and figure out what we need to be doing.”
Kezer declined to speculate where in Amesbury the dispensaries could be allowed, saying he’d prefer to wait and hear what his planners think before giving that any thought.
Even though the law’s provisions went into effect on Jan. 1, the state Department of Public Health has until May 1 to issue regulations on who will run the new dispensaries, how they’ll be operated and where they can be located, among other issues.
Nobody knows what those regulations will look like at this point, leading many communities to take a defensive stance. The worry is that without zoning amendments, communities could get stuck with a dispensary in a high traffic area downtown, or near a school.
Salem, Peabody and Danvers have recently discussed designating the dispensaries as “medical clinics,” which would be prohibited from residential zones and require a special permit from the community’s Zoning Board of Appeals, or as “adult” activity center, which would limit the dispensaries to a particular area.
Reading and Wakefield have gone a step further, reportedly passing zoning changes that ban dispensaries entirely.
Kezer said he expects a number of the dispensaries will end up in Boston and in the other big cities around the state. He added that he is fine with taking more time to let his people assess the situation while other communities move ahead.
“I don’t think it’s too big a risk,” Kezer said. “I don’t know if we’re in a prime target area or not. Somehow, I don’t think we are.”
For those who might call for Amesbury to just ban dispensaries outright like Reading and Wakefield have, Kezer said that medical marijuana dispensaries are like strip clubs in many ways and that they might actually have to be allowed by law.
“What’s happened on that issue is, under the constitution, ‘thou shall allow them in your community.’ It’s a first amendment right to have strip clubs,” Kezer said. “So you have to allow them in your community, but you can regulate them, you can zone them so long as you don’t zone them out of existence.”
Kezer explained that what usually happens when a community tries to figure out where to allow the strip clubs is people think you’re trying to attract them and it creates a huge firestorm.
“You want to say ‘No! We’re not trying to attract them,’ but we have to address properly locating them, and I think it’s the same issue with this,” Kezer said.
Whether or not medical marijuana dispensaries would have the same First Amendment protections as strip clubs is unclear at this point, and it will likely be a long time before all the fine details of the new law are worked out.