By Bill Kirk
---- — Town officials are taking the first step to establish controls should a medical marijuana dispensary sets it sights on Andover.
Although a marijuana dispensary has not yet been proposed in town, planning officials have begun the process of writing a bylaw that would regulate such businesses and limit where they could be located.
This week, Planning Director Paul Materazzo and Planning Board Chairwoman Joan Duff discussed the creation of a Medical Marijuana Overlay District with the Board of Selectmen.
Without such a district, someone could open a pot clinic just about anywhere in town.
“We can’t just ban them and we can’t tuck them away,” said Materazzo, noting that the state attorney general has outlawed both practices.
Instead, he said, the town needs to identify locations and create a bylaw that complies with state law.
“If we do nothing, we take our chances,” he said. “They can go into any part of town that allows medical uses — Dascomb Road, Lowell Street, River Road or downtown. They would be allowed by right.”
The state does set some limits on where such dispensaries can be located, including prohibiting them within 500 feet of a school or where children congregate.
Monday night, Materazzo and Duff identified four locations as suitable for marijuana dispensaries, including areas along Dascomb and Lowell Junction roads, and locations on Haverhill Street and River Road. (See graphic.)
Last November, voters statewide approved the Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Initiative, with more than 63 percent voting in favor of the referendum legalizing medical marijuana. In Andover, the measure passed by nearly 59 percent in favor, or 11,170 votes, to 37 percent against, or 7,065 votes.
The law, dubbed the Humanitarian Medical Use of Marijuana Act, took effect this past January. It aims to provide medical marijuana to people suffering from debilitating and painful diseases or conditions that traditional medicine has been unable to treat effectively.
The state then began accepting applications from people interested in opening clinics, placing a limit of 35 in Massachusetts, with five in each county.
Earlier in the year, a businessman from Newburyport met with a number of local officials and expressed interest in placing a medical marijuana clinic in Andover. At the moment, however, he has focused his attention on other communities, including Salem.
But Materazzo said things could change and someone could end up applying for a clinic in Andover.
Under state guidelines written by the Department of Public Health, the so-called registered marijuana dispensaries are defined as “not-for-profit entities that acquire, cultivate, possess, process, transfer, transport, sell, distribute, dispense or administer marijuana and products containing marijuana and related supplies to registered, qualified patients or their personal caregivers,” Materazzo said.
The purpose of the overlay district would be to provide for the placement of the dispensaries “in locations suitable for lawful medical marijuana facilities and to minimize adverse impacts ... on adjacent properties, residential neighborhoods, historic districts, schools, playgrounds and other locations where minors congregate by regulating (their) siting, design, placement, security and removal.”
Selectman Paul Salafia wanted to know if someone could start growing marijuana, and Materazzo said that under the law, cultivation is allowed. In fact, he said, “we don’t have control over agriculturally exempt properties. Any existing agricultural use can choose to go that way if they have an exemption. They have to grow it indoors and it would be a highly regulated facility.”
A zoning bylaw governing dispensaries would need approval from Town Meeting. Officials are planning on placing a bylaw proposal on the May 2014 Town Meeting warrant.
Selectman Mary Lyman suggested the Board of Selectmen hold a joint public hearing with the Planning Board in the coming weeks to get input from police, health workers and others on the wording of the proposed bylaw. A date for that hearing has not yet been set.
The current proposal would create districts near North Reading, Wilmington and Tewksbury to the south, or Lawrence to the north.
Selectmen Chairman Alex Vispoli suggested reaching out to neighboring communities so that they know Andover is planning on locating the districts near their boundaries.
Materazzo said he has already talked to officials in Wilmington and Tewksbury and has reached out to businesses in the River Road area.
“We are getting the word out there,” he said, adding that he hoped selectmen and other town officials could “marinate on it and after the holidays we can define where we’re going on this.”
Town Manager Buzz Stapczynski said that in order to get the bylaw on the warrant for May, the wording has to be worked out by the end of January, although it could be amended up to March.
“We want a heads up on what you’re looking for,” he said.