LAWRENCE — A city already known as a regional marketplace for heroin and fentanyl won't also become a marketplace for marijuana when its commercial sale becomes legal in Massachusetts, following a unanimous vote by the City Council late Tuesday to block pot shops from opening here.
Mayor Daniel Rivera said he will sign the bill, which will add Lawrence to the list of about 100 municipalities in Massachusetts that have acted to keep out the pot shops or imposed a moratorium on them since voters approved the recreational use of marijuana in a statewide referendum last year. Methuen also has banned them.
The council on Tuesday also approved a bill that will require panhandlers to be off the streets by sunset and to register with the city, limits the American Civil Liberties Union earlier said it may challenge. Federal courts have split on whether similar laws violate the free speech guarantees in the U.S. Constitution, but have agreed that blanket bans on panhandling are illegal.
The 8-0 vote to ban the retail sale of marijuana came after a raucous public hearing that lasted longer than an hour and drew more than 200 people to City Hall, filling the council chambers and the atrium outside it, where the overflow crowd watched the hearing on the city's cable station. All but a handful of the two dozen or so people who spoke opposed allowing pot shops to open, and the two or three people who supported the shops were met with catcalls and boos from the crowd.
Those who opposed allowing the shops to open in Lawrence said police already have their hands full fighting the growing opioid epidemic, which has killed nearly 100 people in the city over the last three years. They also noted that city residents voted against legalizing recreational marijuana in last year's referendum, and also voted against legalizing marijuana for medical purposes four years earlier, when it was one of just two municipalities in the state to vote no. The other was Mendon.
“I can tell you from experience that nothing good will come from this,” resident Michelle Paletta told the council from a wheelchair, adding that she had used drugs and smoked cigarettes for 27 years. “We have enough problems from people who suffer from addiction.”
People who want to allow the pot shops told the councilors that banning them will allow the illicit, unregulated and untaxed street sales of the drug to continue. They said the dangers of the drug are overstated.
“Marijuana is sold in many areas of the city,” Steven Gil, a nurse and a member of the city's Board of Health. “The difference is that we're not making any money (by taxing it). Accept it or not, it's here.”
The state legislature recently voted to tax marijuana sales at 17 percent and to allow localities where it is sold to collect another 3 percent. The Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, a nonprofit that advocated for the referendum legalizing recreational marijuana, said the group will ask that any municipality that keeps out the pot shops should not receive revenues the state will collect by taxing the drug.
Kamani Jefferson, a Cambridge resident who is president of the group, said the group also will push for local referendums that would overturn bans when town boards and city councils impose them.
“It's not the end in Lawrence,” Jefferson said Wednesday. “We're recruiting advocates so when the time is ready, we'll have a grass roots movement across all the Merrimack Valley no matter how they voted. We have friends in Methuen. We have friends in Lawrence.”
The bill limiting panhandling also had wide support on the council, which passed it 6-0. Mayor Rivera said he has not decided whether to sign it.
The bill would require individuals and organizations that want to solicit money to be off the streets by sunset and to obtain a permit from the City Council that would specify the date, time and location of the solicitations. The individuals and organizations would be limited to three days a week. Permits would be good for three months. Violators would be fined $300.
The law does not distinguish between anyone who solicits, including the firefighters who occasionally pass around their boots at busy intersections collecting for charities, and the individuals who appear daily on major thoroughfares such as Route 114. But the latter group got most of attention by residents and city councilors as they considered the proposal over the last few months.
The Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has successfully challenged other limits on panhandling and said earlier it may challenge the limits Lawrence was considering if they passed. John Ward, a spokesman for the ACLU, could not be reached Wednesday.
Councilor Marc Laplante, who proposed the bill, said it would hold up in court because it is not targeted at one group or individual, does not impose a fee for a permit and would regulate panhandling but would not ban it. He said his effort to write a bill that would restrict panhandling while protecting the rights of panhandlers was like “threading a needle.”
“There are a lot of competing elements we have to navigate,” Laplante said. “People are concerned about being asked for money in these public ways. They feel threatened, unsafe. They're looking for some way for government to provide assistance to ensure they're safe. The second element is the other side. There are organizations out there that protect – correctly – freedom of speech and the rights of people to be able to make requests (for money).”
“We could fall and flatten our face on this,” Laplante added. “We'll give it our best shot and do the best we can.”
City Attorney Charles Boddy has advised the council that the limits on panhandling in the bill have withstood challenges. Among them, he cited a 1981 decision by a federal court allowing municipalities to order panhandlers off the streets at sundown. He said the court allowed the restriction “because nighttime panhandling is inherently more dangerous and more frighting” than in the day.
Councilor Jeovanny Rodriguez objected that the council had not discussed the bill with the city officials who would have to enforce it, including police Chief James Fitzpatrick. He said he also asked state Attorney General Maura Healey for a second legal opinion and criticized the council for not waiting for it.
“We know other cities and towns, because of similar ordinances, have been sued,” Rodriguez said. “It's not whether I'm in favor of it. It's about having the city do the right thing before (passing the bill). Sometimes we drag the city into a hole by rushing things through.”