Town officials have been approached by groups looking to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Watertown. Before they officially come forward, the Town Council seeks to come up with a process for vetting them.
Wednesday night, the Council’s Economic Development and Planning subcommittee heard from some of those interested in applying, and from residents. The subcommittee worked out some recommendations for looking at the applications.
Medical marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts in 2012 with the passage of a state ballot question. Communities cannot outright ban medical marijuana dispensaries from coming in, but they can dictate where they are located.
In Watertown, the Town Council voted to restrict them to the industrial zones of town, which mostly lie along two main corridors: Arsenal Street and Pleasant Street. Also, they must be 500 feet or more from a place where children congregate, such as a school, daycare facility or park, said Assistant Town Manager Steve Magoon said.
Since Massachusetts voters approved the ballot question eight have opened around the state.
The town has been approached by four groups interested in opening a dispensary in Watertown, Magoon said, with the locations on Elm Street, Dexter Avenue, Arlington Street and North Beacon Street.
Only one – the one on Elm Street – has gotten as far as submitting some information, Magoon said, but none has gotten far enough to bring forward to the Council.
Before a dispensary can go ahead to apply for a special permit from the Zoning Board, or parts of town the Planning Board, the applicant must receive a letter of support or a letter of non-opposition from the Town Council.
Some communities enter into a host agreement, Magoon said, in which they agree to pay a percentage of the sales or a set amount to the community.
“Many towns entered into host agreements and there are aspects of revenue sharing so some revenues comes back to the municipality,” Magoon said. “The going rate seems to be 3 percent.”
The meeting was attended by about 20 people, including several residents. Some residents opposed having a dispensary in their neighborhood, or having one anywhere it town.
Resident Russ Arico asked, “What can we do if we don’t want it?”
Arico said he had a car totaled when a driver who was under the influence of marijuana struck his car. He worries that people will come to the dispensary and get high and then drive.
“Benadryl says don’t drive after taking it, but people do,” Arico said. “We are kidding ourselves if we think this will be different.”
Another resident brought up the case of the Massachusetts State Trooper who was killed by a driver who was under the influence after getting marijuana from a dispensary.
Arlington Street resident Gail Boyd said she was opposed to having a dispensary on her street. It was proposed for the building where GymIt is located, which is almost right across the street from her home.
“I abut an I-Zone,” Boyd said. “It is in an industrial area, but there are homes right next some of those areas.”
Boyd also wanted to make sure that officials consider the amount of traffic coming to and from a dispensary and if they have enough parking so they aren’t parking on neighborhood streets.
Another resident said she visited some marijuana dispensaries in Oregon and Washington, where the sale of medical and recreational marijuana is legal, and was surprised by what she saw. They were clean, the staff was knowledgable and there were no people hanging around smoking in or around the dispensary.
Aidan O’Donovan is the managing partner of Natural Selections, the group looking at the space on Elm Street. He opened a dispensary in Northglenn, Colo., but grew up in Newton. He said he wants to provide patients with a safe product where people know how much active ingredient they are getting and that the marijuana is not contaminated, like he does in Colorado.
“In Colorado it is all heavily regulated,” O’Donovan said. “It is not so regulated in California, which in my opinion is dangerous – if it is not tested for potency, pesticides, fungus, and salmonella. It is quality compared to what people had to buy on the black market.”
O’Donovan said that the maximum people can buy in Colorado is one once, but most people don’t buy that much. The amount someone might use depends, but they are not coming back every day.
Boston’s Geoff Reilinger of Compassionate Organics, who is interested in starting a dispensary in town, said some dispensaries have a set rate. His group has set up an agreement with the City of Fitchburg to grow marijuana for medical purposes and agreed to pay $50,000 the first year, $100,000 the second, $200,000 the third and the after that increase by the the COLA (cost of living adjustment) set by the Social Security Administration.
Reilenger, who is looking at a site on Dexter Avenue, near Randy’s Car Wash, said security in and around dispensaries is tight, with 24/7 video surveillance, and when marijuana is delivered there must be two drivers for added security. Windows are blocked out so that you cannot see what is going on inside from street.
Medical marijuana is personal for Reilinger, who has multiple sclerosis and said using cannabis has been a great help for him.
“I had six attacks of flare ups all while I was on doctor prescribe medication,” Reilinger said. “My doctor suggested marijuana 15-16 years ago and my MS has been quiet since then.”
He has also seen marijuana effective in stopping epileptic seizures, for those going through cancer treatment, and many other medical problems.
Nichole Snow, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, said many patients with medical marijuana prescriptions cannot access a dispensary.
“The statistics are bleak. There are eight dispensaries, 37,000 patients, but 15,000 do not have access,” Snow said.
The closest one to Watertown is in Brookline. Councilors asked if that was too far. Reilinger said people with other prescriptions can go down the street to CVS or other pharmacies.
What if Recreational Marijuana is Legalized?
Some of the Councilors worried what would happen if Question 4 passes, and legalizes the sale of marijuana for recreational use.
Falkoff said the language of the ballot question says recreational marijuana could be sold at locations where medical marijuana has already been approved.
Piccirilli said he does not believe that Watertown would have to allow that, if a medical marijuana dispensary is approved because of zoning rules.
“A recreational marijuana facility is not in the table of uses in our zoning, so they would not be able to sell recreational marijuana without coming back to the town and getting another special permit,” Piccirilli said.
Magoon said the agreement a dispensary would have to come to with the town would not allow recreational marijuana sales.
“We would expect them to stand by that agreement,” Magoon said.
The subcommittee did not limit the number of dispensaries that could be in town, but rather voted to recommend to the full Council that it be left it so approval would be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
Also, the subcommittee voted to recommend that the permit granting authority (in most cases the Zoning Board of Appeals) be the one to decide on hours of operation, rather than the Town Council.
The councilors also discussed whether they should keep the 500-foot buffer from any place where children congregate or to allow for less than that amount if there is some other buffer in between.
If a change was made to allow for something other than the 500-foot buffer, it is likely the Town Council would have to pass an amendment to the Zoning Ordinance. Piccirilli said he preferred getting an opinion from the town’s attorney before making a change. The subcommittee voted to do so.