, Newburyport, MA

December 4, 2013

Councilors push for pause on 'pot farms'

By Mac Cerullo
Staff Writer

---- — AMESBURY – A special meeting of the City Council has been scheduled for tonight to hold the first reading of a bill that would establish a temporary moratorium on medical marijuana development in Amesbury.

The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. in the City Hall Auditorium, and the bill’s first reading is the only item on the agenda.

Councilors Donna McClure, James Kelcourse and Joseph McMilleon requested the meeting, setting the stage for a potential vote on the moratorium later this month. If approved, the moratorium would run through June 30, 2014, and during that time the city would study the issue and consider whether or not to adopt new zoning protections.

McClure is the proposal’s primary sponsor, and the bill is modeled after a similar piece of legislation passed earlier this year in Burlington. She said the reason she’s pushing for the moratorium is to slow down the medical marijuana development process so the city will have a chance to better prepare itself. Two companies have indicated they want to establish marijuana growing farms in Amesbury.

She also reiterated her feeling that a move to declare that Amesbury was not opposed to the pot farms was sprung upon the city at the last minute by Council President Anne Ferguson after the election, and that most of the nine councilors were kept out of the loop while discussions took place behind the scenes.

“I’m disappointed that this is not a unanimous request,” McClure said. “We were elected to represent the people, and many of the councilors have been excluded from this discussion.”

Originally it was expected that the earliest a vote could be taken was in February, because with the new council taking office in January, any first readings taken this month would fall by the wayside and need to be proposed again next month.

With a first reading in January and a vote in February, the moratorium would likely come too late to do anything about the prospective medical marijuana cultivation facilities interested in coming to Amesbury. The Department of Public Health is expected to issue their licenses by the end of January, and if approved, the facilities could begin setting up shop right away.

By holding a special meeting tonight to take care of the first reading, the City Council will be able to vote on the medical marijuana moratorium before the end of the year and resolve the issue one way or the other well before the DPH licenses are issued.

There are two organizations known to be interested in establishing cultivation facilities in Amesbury. One is Alternative Therapies Group Inc., which is a Newburyport-based non-profit looking into a property on South Hunt Road, and the other is Green Heart Health and Pharmaceuticals, which is reportedly looking at a property at 10 Industrial Way.

Both groups have indicated that they have no plans to dispense medical marijuana from their facilities and are looking to open separate dispensaries elsewhere. McClure noted that there is no legal distinction between dispensaries and cultivation facilities, however, so there’s no guarantee that the facilities couldn’t begin dispensing down the line.

One potential pitfall the bill faces is whether or not enough councilors show up at tonight’s meeting to meet quorum. McClure said that Kelcourse and McMilleon both told her they’d be there, but that Bob Gilday said he couldn’t make it. If five councilors aren’t in attendance, then the first reading can’t be held and the bill would likely have to wait until after the new year.

If the first reading does go ahead as planned, McClure said there would likely need to be another special meeting scheduled to hold the vote, and under open meeting law the earliest that could happen is Tuesday, Dec. 17.

McClure said she’s worried that if it gets too close to the holiday, it will become impossible to schedule a meeting, but she’s still hopeful that there’s enough interest on the council to push the bill through.

“I’m afraid if we don’t move now, we’ll lose the opportunity for a study of this,” McClure said. “Everyone wants to study it and figure it out, so I hope we can get the moratorium so we can give those who weren’t attending the meetings a chance to get caught up.”