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Medical Marijuana

Bernardston responds to AG’s pot ruling

BERNARDSTON — An effort to ban medical marijuana dispensaries from town will now shift to regulating them, after the state’s Attorney General has ruled such bans unlawful.

Last month, the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to have the Planning Board draft a bylaw barring dispensaries. However, a ruling Wednesday by Attorney General Martha Coakley put a stop to a similar ban in the eastern part of the state.

“We find that such a ban would frustrate the purpose of (the state’s decision to allow access to medical marijuana),” read the opinion.

Now, it’s back to the drawing board for selectmen.

“I think there’s a consensus (among the board) that we will have to re-address medical marijuana,” said Virginia Budness, chairwoman of Bernardston’s Board of Selectmen. “We’re not opposed to medical marijuana, we just want to be sure we have the proper resources in place.”

At a meeting last month, all three board members said that they didn’t have a problem with medical marijuana itself. Their concern was that their small town just didn’t have the resources to support a dispensary.

The medical marijuana law stated that a maximum of 35 dispensaries may open in the first year, with at least one and no more than five in each of the commonwealth’s 14 counties.

If Bernardston wound up hosting the county’s sole dispensary, said selectmen, it could see a huge increase in traffic, as patients from all over the county flocked to town to buy prescription pot.

Selectmen were also worried that a storeroom of sativa could be a target for break-ins or robberies.

“I could see a dispensary causing the need for increased staffing,” said Police Chief James Palmeri, after the board decided to look into a ban.

Budness said if a dispensary were to come to town, she hopes it would come along with a little extra funding.

“If a dispensary were to be thrust on us, we would certainly look into asking it to help fund police and other needed resources,” said Budness.

“I’m sure we would also go to the state, and say ‘you mandated it, you help us fund it,’” she continued. “But the state is notorious for mandating things, saying they’re going to fund them, and not doing so.”

Though it may not be able to keep a dispensary from setting up shop in town, Bernardston still has options.

“We would probably put a moratorium (on dispensaries), and work on regulating them with zoning laws,” said Budness.

The moratorium, and any proposed zoning, must be approved by town meeting voters. Both, as bylaws, would then be sent to the attorney general’s office for approval, though the state has less authority over zoning than other bylaws.

Though outright bans are off the table, the attorney general’s office does support moratoriums on dispensaries. The same day the office denied bans, it approved Burlington’s 2012 town meeting decision to put pot shops on hold while the town drafts a bylaw regulating their placement.

The attorney general’s decision also supports such zoning measures.

While towns look into regulating future dispensaries, the state Department of Public Health does the same.

The department was given until May to craft statewide regulations on dispensaries, but announced this week that it would release a draft of the regulations March 29, hold public hearings April 19, and vote on the final draft May 8. If approved, the regulations could go into effect as early as May 24.

After that, dispensaries may begin applying to the department for licensure.

Until those regulations are released, towns won’t know what Massachusetts’ version of medical marijuana will look like. Areas covered will include the quantification of the “60-day supply” allowed in the law, rules for the cultivation and storage of the drug, and “personal caregivers” who will be able to provide marijuana to qualified patients not able to access a dispensary.

It’s difficult for towns to begin to regulate something when they don’t have the specifics yet.

“We need more information,” said Budness. “We have to look at this issue carefully.”

If the town is able to put a moratorium in place, she said, the town won’t have to rush to enact zoning regulations on dispensaries.

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