By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — City officials are bracing for the possibility that someone will try to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Haverhill.
They said if the city isn’t ready to deal with such a request, it could find itself in a bind and possibly have little say in the matter.
City Councilor William Macek said one local community amended its zoning laws and Haverhill may want to do the same. He said the city faced a similar dilemma when it faced requests to have methadone clinics open here several years ago.
“On two occasions at least, the city rejected requests for a special permit to bring a methadone clinic to Haverhill,” Macek said. “We need some safeguards prior to someone looking to come to the city as a matter of right and do what they almost choose to do by law.”
The use of medical marijuana in Massachusetts was approved by 63 percent of voters in the Nov. 6 general election. The dispensaries will be overseen by the state Department of Public Health, which has until April to release specific regulations.
The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, removes state criminal and civil penalties for medical marijuana use for patients with certain debilitating conditions. The law provides for 35 nonprofit medical marijuana treatment centers throughout the state, with no more than five in each county. The centers may grow, process and provide marijuana to patients who have a prescription from a doctor.
As a result of voters’ approval, communities across the region have been discussing ways to regulate the location of marijuana dispensaries or treatment centers.
“Should somebody want to open one in Haverhill, there should be some conditions and requirements which we don’t have any of at this time,” Macek said. “If we don’t do anything, it could result in allowing it anywhere in the community, and potentially in a neighborhood.”
In Lawrence, City Councilor Marc Laplante recently proposed a change to the city’s zoning ordinances that would prevent such a dispensary from locating within 1,000 feet of a school, public park, playground or home.
Of the 351 communities in Massachusetts, only Lawrence and the small town of Mendon voted against legalizing medical marijuana. The measure failed in both municipalities by slim margins but passed easily statewide.
“This is probably more restrictive than less,” Laplante said about his proposal. “The majority of the people of Lawrence have spoken at the ballot box on this issue. It’s our responsibility to get ahead of the curve.”
Macek said that about a week after Massachusetts voters approved the medical use of marijuana, the town of Wakefield amended its zoning laws. The town defined what a medical marijuana treatment center is, and amended its rules to not allow medical marijuana treatment centers in any of its zoned districts. Macek said the town passed Article 11 amending its zoning bylaws on Nov. 15 and sent it on to the attorney general for approval.
“Wakefield defined it and said they won’t have any of it and they did it a week after the general elections,” Macek said. “As a community, we need to look at this from a practical standpoint, although I’m not even sure you can legally zone this out as they did.”
Macek said it his understanding that the use of medical marijuana can be very helpful in relieving some of the complications of cancer and other debilitating illness, but he doesn’t want to see it handed out so freely that it creates problems.
“Maybe it can be dispensed in a hospital setting, but if we don’t start looking at this now, we won’t be ready when the law takes effect,” he said. “We don’t want to end up in crisis management or a law suit.”