Medical Marijuana

Montague looks at  pot dispensary issue

MONTAGUE — How do you solve a problem like where to allow a marijuana dispensary, and is it even a problem?

At its regular monthly meeting Tuesday, the town Planning Board continued to discuss the question that has come up in many Franklin County towns since the overwhelming passage of a state referendum legalizing medical marijuana last year: how to react to the hypothetical placement of a dispensary in town.

Town Planner Walter Ramsey said two companies possibly interested in operating dispensaries in Montague have contacted him recently.

After some discussion, the board opted to hold a public hearing at its next meeting, Aug. 27 at 6:30 p.m., to gather public input on possible approaches, with alternatives to be elaborated upon by the planner.

Possibilities raised include a moratorium while considering zoning changes, allowing dispensaries where they would be allowed under the existing bylaws but subject to special permit, leaving the situation as it is, or liberalizing the zoning and relaxing restrictions.

Ramsey said it appears the dispensaries would be considered a retail sales and service business and therefore allowed in a number of districts, but are already subject to a slew of setback and other regulations promulgated by the Department of Public Health.

Retail sales and service establishments are allowed by right in the general business, neighborhood business, central business, rural business and historic industrial districts, and by special permit in industrial districts.

Member Bruce Young moved to allow the dispensaries where they are now allowed under the zoning bylaws, but to make this subject to special permit to allow for the exercise of common sense, an addition to the bylaws that would require the usual hearing and town meeting approval process.

Member Frederic Bowman argued for public input before choosing a direction and stressed the security facet of the issue, presenting marijuana dispensaries as attractive and lucrative targets for thieves after drugs or cash.

Young contended that the security of dispensaries is not the town’s problem.

Young said if the town considers special regulation for marijuana dispensaries it should do the same for gun shops and methadone clinics.

“I don’t know why this falls into a different category, I guess,” Young said.

Inspector of Buildings David Jensen said the board shouldn’t try to fix a problem without knowing what it is, and suggested that this might be a business the town would want to attract, or that beginning the process of implementing a moratorium would precipitate proposals from developers looking to get in under the wire.

Bowman said that while people wanted this — 63 percent of voters statewide backed the referendum, 72 percent in Franklin County — they will not be as welcoming once a dispensary is proposed in their backyard.

Young said people would find reasons to oppose a Mother Theresa blessing house as a neighbor.

Conway has already passed a one-year moratorium on dispensaries in town while studying the issue and others including Greenfield — to which Montague is second in size in the county — are considering moratoriums.

An effort in Wendell to issue an invitation for responsible dispensary development failed at the annual town meeting.

A handful of other Massachusetts towns have already crafted new zoning regulations in response to the medical marijuana act. Jensen said two of these amount to near-total bans on dispensaries.

The act calls on the DPH to permit at least one and no more than five dispensaries per county in the first year. The attorney general has ruled that towns may not ban dispensaries outright. By establishing minimum setbacks from homes, categories of business, religious, educational and other institutions, it is possible to zone a particular use practically out of town.

The town of Erving, for instance, in 2012 passed zoning bylaws regulating adult entertainment, with setbacks and other restrictions such that it would be very difficult to establish such a business in the single district in which it is now permitted.

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