March 9, 2017: Marijuana regulation: Opinions need to surface early

March 9, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont will soon face the complex task of deciding how to regulate local marijuana dispensaries within the community.  Under “Question 4,” approved by Massachusetts voters in November of 2016, the recreational use of marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts.  While the state legislature is now considering amendments to the marijuana statute, legislators who are involved with that process say that no major changes will be made to the intent of what voters approved. The new statute gives the authority, and the responsibility, to develop local regulations to the town’s Board of Health.

Despite the flux that is present at the state level, Belmont residents should be thinking even now about what types of local regulation they might wish.  On the one hand, it might seem that since marijuana is now legal, the town could not prohibit its sale within town borders.  That conclusion, however, may well be wrong.  Not long ago, for example, Belmont was still a “dry” town, even though the consumption of alcohol has been legal for some time.  In contrast, David Alper, chair of the Belmont Board of Health, has said, rightly so in my opinion, that the Board will consider the fact that a majority of Belmont voters approved Question 4.  The community, in other words, has already expressed its preference.

Some topics are outside the scope of local regulation. The licensing of marijuana dispensaries, for example, is within state control.  Belmont, therefore, would not have the authority to require background checks of owners/operators or to require local ownership of marijuana facilities.  In contrast, governing the location of marijuana dispensaries is clearly within the town’s control.  We presumably would not want such stores to be close to schools, day care centers or parks. One question is whether we wish to limit marijuana dispensaries to one part of town, or whether we should allow them throughout town. For example, like liquor sales, we might want each major business center to have at least one sales location.

Local regulation of marijuana dispensaries will have some (but not all) aspects of the regulation of both alcohol and cigarettes. The form of marijuana sales, however, makes the issue of local regulation complex almost beyond belief.  In some ways, the sale could be like that of tea, where a customer can ask the proprietor to mix and match different types, flavors or potencies of the product.  However, marijuana can also be mixed with candy, with food, or with baked goods.  On-site consumption of marijuana is allowed (e.g., sitting down to eat on-site).  Each type of sale presents its own issues.

Some aspects of local regulation are very traditional zoning-type issues, including fencing, lighting and hours of operation.  Other aspects might not be traditional at all. Should there be regulation of trash disposal, security, and days of operation?  Would it even be legal to require local businesses to display information on the potential adverse consequences of using marijuana (e.g., impaired driving)?

Belmont could do nothing, but that would not be wise.  In the face of local inaction, the state would step in to regulate. Belmont would have to accept what the state decides.

In short, Belmont is facing major decisions on whether and how to regulate the local sale of marijuana.  People will have strong opinions. The Board of Health not only deserves to hear those opinions, but is striving to solicit those opinions.  Belmont residents should work with the Board to help craft marijuana decisions, not simply wait to respond to regulations, once published, on a straight up-or-down reject-or-approve manner.  When opportunities arise for public input, this topic of the local regulation of marijuana dispensaries deserves everyone’s attention and involvement.


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