Melrose is joining a growing list of communities throughout the Commonwealth in a preemptive push to ban medical marijuana dispensaries within the city.
Melrose, Reading, Saugus, and Wakefield are simultaneously pushing for a change in zoning ordinances that would effectively outlaw the dispensaries, said Melrose Mayor Robert Dolan. A similar control is set for consideration in Malden, and a Melrose public health official said efforts are also underway in Hudson.
If passed, the law would establish a maximum of 35 nonprofit treatment centers that would be licensed with the state Department of Public Health and capable of cultivating and selling marijuana to qualified patients who obtain a prescription from their doctor.
The prohibition of the facilities springs from what Dolan said are dubious standards that could unwittingly allow abuse of the law, which defines a qualifying patient as someone diagnosed by their doctor with a debilitating medical condition, and who would derive a benefit from medical use of the substance.
"Due to these poor standards there could be crime and quality of life issues," the mayor said. "Our Planning Board believes that this is the right piece of legislation for Melrose."
The push comes less than a month before voters in Massachusetts are expected to overwhelmingly pass the measure, also known as Question 3, at the Nov. 6 election.
Ruth Clay, the director of the regionalized Board of Health for Melrose, Wakefield, and Reading, said other states that have medical marijuana laws have seen vast abuse.
"In the experiences of these other states the primary purchaser of marijuana in these stores are not people with chronic debilitating illnesses in great pain," Clay said. "The average purchaser in California is a 32-year-old white male with no other underlying medical conditions."
For instance, Clay said, the law allows for a qualified patients to keep a 60-day supply of the substance, but does not define a specific quantity. There is also no age minimum for recipients, she said.
"There are a lot of issues still to be addressed."
Next for the measure, which has already received preliminary Planning Board approval, is a joint meeting between the Board of Aldermen and the Planning Board. A public hearing also will be necessary, and must be scheduled within 65 days of Planning Board approval.
"The problem with doing nothing is the uncertainty of how its going to be interpreted," said Denise Gaffey, Melrose city planner. "And if it is defined as closely to one of the medical uses in our zoning ordinance, it could be allowed."
Gaffey said surrounding communities will be notified of the hearing, and that anyone with strong opinions should speak out.
"We want everyone to be aware of it, and if there are issues or concerns, or if you support it or opposed to it, come and say why," Gaffey said.
In Massachusetts, all town bylaws come under review by the office of Attorney General Martha Coakley for compatibility with other state laws. But city ordinances do not face the same process, giving those such as Melrose freedom to pass ordinances as they see fit, according to Coakley's office.
Coakley's office declined to speculate on the legality of bylaws not yet passed at town meetings. In general, laws passed by cities are only reviewable once a legal challenge is filed, and Coakley's office did not comment on the potential legality of the Melrose ordinance.
Matt Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.