Needham officials may seek a moratorium on the distribution and cultivation of medical marijuana in town, citing a lack of guidance from the state health officials on how medical marijuana should be regulated since being legalized in November.
“It is very clear to us that the voters have spoken,” said Jane Fogg, a member of the Needham Board of Health, at a Board of Selectmen meeting on Tuesday night. “What’s also very clear to us is we have a responsibility to do this safely and properly. We’ve all been suffering from a lack of clear direction from the state.”
In November last year, Massachusetts residents voted to legalize the use of medical marijuana for patients suffering from diseases such as cancer, AIDS and Crohn’s disease. It allows up to 35 medical marijuana dispensaries to open in the state, and also allows some patients to cultivate their own marijuana.
The law technically took effect on Jan. 1, but the state Department of Public Health has 120 days to write regulations to guide its implementation.
Officials in Needham say that without those state regulations, they cannot proceed with writing zoning regulations to control where in town dispensaries could be located. However, a moratorium would have to be approved by Town Meeting.
“The key thing is the siting of the dispensaries,” said Daniel Matthews, a member of the Board of Selectmen. “That’s the thing people are concerned about, and the [Department of Public Health] guidance says nothing about siting. And the statute is ambiguous… The idea of a moratorium is simply to say, we will not have any siting until we get some clarification from the state.”
In Needham, zoning bylaws must be approved by Town Meeting vote. The state will not issue any dispensary licenses until after it has written regulations.
If the regulations do not come out until May 1, officials would not have time to get their own regulations on the May Town Meeting warrant, which closes in February, and would be left with no regulations to guide the placement of dispensaries in town.
Other towns are struggling with the same questions as Needham. In Burlington, the Planning Board recently voted to recommend to Town Meeting a moratorium on dispensary applications until June 30, 2014, according to Assistant Planner Don Benjamin.
“We need to see what the state Department of Public Health has to say in the way of recommendations, and then do community planning around those recommendations,” Benjamin said. “We feel like there’s too much uncertainty right now.”
In Needham, officials are considering a moratorium of between six and 12 months. At the next Board of Selectmen meeting, said Matthews, the Town Manager will make a recommendation to the board about the moratorium. Then selectmen will vote whether to ask the Planning Board to draft language for Town Meeting to vote on. Town Meeting in May will have the final say on whether the moratorium is declared.
Town Meeting will also be deciding on a public consumption of marijuana bylaw, proposed by the Board of Health and the Police Department, that would impose a $200 fine on anyone caught smoking marijuana in public, in addition to the $100 fine that already exists for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.
The Board of Selectmen has yet to take a position on the bylaw.
Board members generally spoke in favor of the moratorium Tuesday night, though opinions differed over how long it should be.
“I think that the town government’s approach to this is to take a go-slow approach,” said Matthews. “The voters cast their votes for the principle, but not necessarily some of the details. Making sure those details are done the right way is the job of town government.”
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org