Officials in Salem may have been thinking progressively when they included the word "dispensary" in the city's 2010 zoning ordinance defining medical clinics, but with the passing of Question 3 last month, some would like to see the ordinance changed to specifically address medical marijuana dispensaries.
City solicitor Beth Rennard, at the urging of Ward 3 Councilor Todd Seigel drafted a proposed addition that the council discussed Tuesday night jointly with the planning board.
The amendment would simply add the phrase "including the dispensing of medical marijuana by a treatment center registered by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Public Health" to the definition of a medical clinic.
The change is a preemptive way to close any unseen loopholes that might allow a marijuana dispensary to move into a residential area. Medical clinics are prohibited from residential areas. The city council has 90 days to vote on whether to amend the ordinance and the planning board will return its recommendation to the council in the next few weeks.
The discussion brought about questions, some of which had simple answers, others which will only be answered with time as the state's health department sets forth regulations.
Councilor-at-large Tom Furey expressed a desire to see North Shore Medical Center handle any future dispensing of medical marijuana in the city. According to Rennard, most of the hospital actually falls in residential zoning, so unless that changes, Furey's idea is not an option.
Planning board member Randy Clarke wondered what would keep a dispensary from moving into the city under the same guidelines as a pharmacy such as CVS or Walgreen's, which also dispense prescription medication.
The simple answer, according to Rennard, is that the city has a narrow definition of a dispensary being a place only where people pick up prescriptions, whereas everyday pharmacies have a retail component to them.
But Clarke wonders if there is anything in state law that would prevent a dispensary from giving out medical marijuana, and adding a retail component by selling product as well, such as hemp clothing, and making the argument that it should be considered the equivalent of an everyday pharmacy.
"I think we should wait and see what the public health regulations are," Rennard said. "I think it's too soon to tell. I am expecting that those regulations will be very tight."
Some councilors expressed the feeling that it seems a bit early to be discussing the issue, given the unanswered questions surrounding medical marijuana laws in Massachusetts. No dispensaries will be licensed until January 2014. Regulations still have to be put in place, and as with any new law, court cases will set precedents as to what is acceptable under the law as written.
"I think we should wait until we hear more specifically from the Legislature, or from our city solicitor, before we start tinkering with our ordinances," Ward 7 Councilor Joseph O'Keefe said.
The planning board will take up the issue Thursday night at its regular meeting in the third-floor conference room at the City Hall Annex, 120 Washington Street, at 7 p.m.