By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY – A special meeting of the City Council has been scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 17 to hold a public hearing on a proposed moratorium on medical marijuana development.
The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. in City Hall Auditorium, and the councilors are expected to take a vote on the proposal at the conclusion of the public hearing.
The moratorium was proposed by Councilor Donna McClure, who is requesting that the city implement a temporary ban on medical marijuana development so that Amesbury will have time to study the issue and enact new zoning protections regulating the fledgling industry.
If approved, the moratorium would run through June 30, 2014.
The council held a special meeting on Wednesday night to conduct its first reading of the moratorium bill, and after a brief discussion the council voted 5-1 in favor of forwarding the moratorium proposal to committee and to the Planning Board while scheduling the second reading and public hearing for Dec. 17.
Councilors McClure, James Kelcourse, Derek Kimball, Joe McMilleon and Bob Lavoie voted in favor of scheduling the special meeting, and Council President Anne Ferguson voted against it. Councilors Bob Gilday, Christian Scorzoni and Allen Neale were not in attendance.
With the approval, the Ordinance Committee will discuss the issue at its Dec. 10 meeting, prior to the regularly scheduled City Council meeting, and McClure said she’d be reaching out to Planning Board Chairman Howard Dalton to see when the Planning Board could pick up the issue.
“I’d like to have is another public hearing on this, especially for the abutters because there’s no requirement by the town to notify the abutters on this issue,” McClure said. “Many of the folks who are abutting these facilities, they really don’t know this is happening.”
There are currently 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 property at 10 Industrial Way.
Both organizations are seeking licenses from the Department of Public Health, and if approved they have each said they only plan on using their Amesbury facilities for cultivation, and would dispense medical marijuana from separate facilities elsewhere.
McClure said she pushed hard for the moratorium after it was brought to her attention that there is no legal distinction between dispensaries and cultivation facilities, and as a result there would be no guarantee that the facilities couldn’t start dispensing in the future.
But beyond that, she also wanted to give the city a chance to slow down and learn more about medical marijuana. She said many residents have asked her if Amesbury will need more police officers, but in her discussions she’s learned that the medical marijuana is grown differently.
"According to ATG, 95 percent of the medical marijuana grown in these facilities is for use in food or pills," McClure said. "It is not the type of marijuana that is smoked."
“All I want to do is protect the town,” she added. “The public hasn’t been notified and there’s a fear factor because people fear the unknown, but if we just get this pause in place, we can educate the public and help people get more comfortable with it.”
By scheduling a special meeting before the end of the year, the City Council will be able to vote on the moratorium before the DPH issues its licenses. Originally it was expected that the earliest a vote on the moratorium could be taken were in February, because with the new council taking office in January, any legislation not settled before the end of the year would fall by the wayside.
Once the new council is seated, the moratorium could be proposed again, but at that point the city would be running right up against the clock. The DPH is expected to issue its licenses by the end of January, and if either ATG or GHHP was approved, the facilities could begin setting up shop before the city has a chance to pass the moratorium.