By Jesse Roman
---- — The idea that marijuana should be legal for citizens with chronic illnesses was overwhelmingly approved by Massachusetts voters on Election Day — that was the easy part. But nobody is really sure what happens next.
“There are a tremendous amount of questions,” said Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, a staunch opponent of the law.
The vaguely worded ballot question, which passed by a near 2-1 margin, makes it legal for citizens with a doctor’s note to purchase and consume marijuana for medical treatment. Only two communities in the state, Lawrence and Mendon, voted against the measure.
The law calls for up to 35 marijuana dispensaries to be set up in Massachusetts next year, with at least one but no more than five in each county. The state’s Department of Public Health is charged with regulating medical marijuana, as well as filling in the many blanks, such as how the dispensaries will operate, where they can be located, how much pot they can dispense, where the drugs will come from and much more. So far, the department is mute on how things might shake out.
“The department will work closely with health care and public safety officials to develop smart and balanced policies and procedures over the coming months,” Lauren Smith, interim commissioner for the Department of Public Health, said in a statement to The Salem News. “We will work carefully, learn from other states’ experiences and put a system in place that is right for Massachusetts.”
The department declined to say if it had already received any applications from people or businesses looking to open up dispensaries.
With so few answers, communities are left to make educated guesses at how to prepare for the prospect of having a marijuana dispensary in their own backyards. Danvers selectmen and Salem and Peabody city councils have had at least some brief discussions already with the idea of changing or altering zoning bylaws to limit where dispensaries might locate. That’s a smart strategy, Salem Rep. John Keenan said.
“If you don’t zone it, I imagine the dispensaries would be able to locate in any business district and I would imagine that would be a concern,” said Keenan, Salem’s former city solicitor. “But then the question is where do you put it? I don’t think there are going to be councilors lined up to volunteer to have it in their ward.”
The Salem council will hold a joint public hearing with the city Planning Board to discuss the issue on Tuesday, Dec. 4.
“I would like to move in some kind of direction that would define (dispensary locations) as narrowly as possible,” said Salem City Council President and Sen.-elect Joan Lovely, who voted against the ballot question.
Danvers Selectman Dan Bennett guessed that a community would have legal difficulty banning dispensaries altogether and urged his fellow board members last month to start planning for the strong possibility that a dispensary will open in Danvers.
“There is a likelihood they will want to locate where the traffic is, and, let’s face it, all of the highways go through Danvers,” Bennett said in an interview. The town’s attorneys are now looking into what the town’s options are.
Like Salem, “I think we’ll be looking into a zoning bylaw to control the location,” Bennett said. “Frankly, I don’t want it in the downtown area where kids are hanging out after school.”
The Peabody City Council is doing the same and will hold a Legal Affairs Subcommittee meeting Tuesday addressing if it can control the location of marijuana dispensaries “so they don’t just pop up on the corner,” City Councilor Dave Gamache said at a meeting Nov. 8.
Despite the overwhelming vote, the state Legislature has authority to repeal the law, though everyone agrees that’s extremely unlikely. There’s little doubt, however, that the law will be altered, Danvers Rep. Ted Speliotis said.
“The way I and I think most of the Legislature looks at ballot questions is it’s the voters accepting or rejecting an idea. The actual implementation is left to the government,” Speliotis said. “Every chapter of the law is written to amend and improve on. That’s every new piece of legislation. We ask how can we make it better?”
The new session officially begins in January. Lawmakers usually begin filing legislation for the upcoming year in mid-December.
“We’ll know a lot more about (what lawmakers’ intentions are) in the next couple of weeks,” Keenan said. “I would venture to see what the DPH does first. Right now, we’re in wait-and-see mode.”
Keenan, who was in favor of the ballot measure, said he wants to hear from district attorneys, law enforcement, health care providers and others before deciding how to improve the law.
“I’m sure the district attorney will reach out to us and give us some advice about what we might do to implement the law in a safer way,” Keenan said. “We’re willing to listen to folks who have any ideas on implementation.”
Whatever happens, “we’ll be very cautious and make sure the implementation is consistent with the intention of the law,” Speliotis said.
Blodgett, however, has little faith that anything can be done to save what he considers a very flawed idea.
“The bottom line is that there are no safeguards we can put in place to prevent abuse from this (law),” the district attorney said in an interview. “Look at other states, they are all trying to change the law that was initially passed because they are grappling with the problem of abuse. It will be a challenge for the Legislature and the local communities to decide where the dispensaries will be and how they will run.”
Blodgett laments that the law will inevitably lead to “more drug use, more people driving cars stoned and more necessity for health care providers to provide health care. ... The last thing we need are more 15-year-old kids smoking pot.”
That said, Blodgett hopes lawmakers and DPH will reach out to him and other law enforcement officials as resources as they try to implement the law and dull the negative impacts.
“I hope the Legislature crafts tight, well-thought-out restrictions and language,” he said. “That is going to be important.”