Split Town Council Won’t Stand in Way of Medical Marijuana Dispensary

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Charlie Breitrose

Watertown's City Hall.

Charlie Breitrose

Watertown’s Town Hall.

A proposed medical marijuana dispensary in East Watertown cleared a major hurdle Tuesday night when the Town Council voted 6-3 to approve a “Letter of Non-Opposition” for the application.

The applicants, Natural Selections (or NS AJO), still must get approval of a special permit from the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals before they can open the dispensary at 23 Elm Street.

The decision came after about two-and-a-half hours of debate, discussion and public input.

Members of the public were split for and against the proposed dispensary. Those in favor said that people with illnesses and diseases such as cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis (MS) benefit from using medical marijuana, and they must get an ID issued by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Others noted that voters in Massachusetts and Watertown approved the medical marijuana ballot question in 2012.

Opponents said they worried that the marijuana sold at the dispensary could find its way into the hands of Watertown youth, and that if it is medication that people can get a prescription for it should be sold at pharmacies. Neighbors said that the facility may be located in an industrial zone, but it is also just a few hundred feet from homes, the new hotel and is near a childcare center and Filippello Park.

Opponents said that there are dispensaries in other nearby communities such as Cambridge, Newton, Brookline and Boston, and they don’t think it is appropriate to have one in a small town like Watertown. Supporters said for someone who is very ill, such as a cancer patient, even going a few miles to stand in line at a dispensary can be very difficult. Also some, such as those with epilepsy, cannot drive.

Recreational Sales?

Many said they fear that the medical marijuana facility will being selling marijuana to recreational customers, since Massachusetts voters approved a ballot question for recreational use in November.

Town Council President Mark Sideris said that heard the concern about recreational sales and the application already said that Natural Selections would have to come back to the Town to get a second special permit if it wanted to sell marijuana for recreational use. Sideris asked asked Natural Selections’ Chief Operating Officer Aidan O’Donovan, whether he would be willing to go a step further and agree not to ever ask the town to be able to sell for recreational use.

“If that is a deal breaker I am absolutely willing to do that,” O’Donovan said.

Town Attorney Mark Reich added, however, that if state law changes and allows any medical marijuana facility to also sell to recreational customers that the town would have not power to stop them from doing so. Currently, the way the Recreational marijuana law is written, Reich said, that is not allowed automatically.

Council Split

Town Councilors had a long and passionate debate on both sides of the issue.

Councilor at-large Susan Falkoff said that she focused only on the question of medical marijuana.

“I find myself puzzled by talk of recreational marijuana …” Falkoff said. “Voting down these people is not going to make that issue go away. I am impressed by (Natural Selections). They are willing to reach out and accommodate our requests. I am in support of this.”

East End Councilor Angeline Kounelis has long opposed a medical marijuana facility. She noted that when the zoning was changed to limit dispensaries only to industrial zones she voted against it because most of those areas are in East Watertown.

“The industrial zones in Watertown are not the same as the industrial zones 50 years ago,” Kounelis said. “Within 50 feet (of the dispensary) are people’s homes. People will be walking past the dispensary when they are attending classes at the Arsenal Center [now Mosesian Center] and visiting shops in the area.”

Councilor at-large Michael Dattoli said he worries about marijuana being a gateway drug, and said he knows people who have struggled with drug use and they also used marijuana at one time.

He is also uneasy about the location of the dispensary. He was at Target recently and said he could see the proposed location, and it is right across from Friendly’s, which caters to children and families.

“It is very close to Filippello Park, very close to where the Watertown Children’s Theatre is,” Dattoli said. “And they are talking about at the Arsenal Yards [the Arsenal Mall] putting in a movie theater or bowling alley – places where children congregate.”

District B Councilor Lisa Feltner said there are a number of changes coming to the area of East Watertown, and there are more changes likely with what is proposed in the town’s Comprehensive Plan. She said she would like to see more detailed planning and zoning in that area.

“I believe the neighborhood deserves better,” Feltner said. “The Comprehensive Plan calls for more residences – we have that, more restaurants – not yet, luxury office space – not just yet, and people also want connections to the Charles River. And MassDOT’s Arsenal Street Corridor Study is not done yet.”

Councilor at-large Aaron Dushku said he does not have the same worry about marijuana, and compared it to alcohol.

“We have liquor stores and cigarette stores, and people use it responsibly and people who use it irresponsibly,” Dushku said. “People talk about the peril of having this in the neighborhood. I don’t see the peril in marijuana use.”

Councilor at-large Tony Palomba said he believes the medical marijuana industry is very regulated in Massachusetts and the Department of Public Health checks all steps along the way “from seed to sale.” He added that he does not believe marijuana should be used by everyone, but it should for people who have a prescription.

“My opposition of use of opiates as (an illicit) drug does not make me opposed to use of it for people who have a medical need,” Palomba said. “The same thing for me for medical marijuana.”

Westside Councilor Ken Woodland said that he would be going against a majority of his district if he opposed the medical marijuana facility. He noted that a majority of District D voters supported both Question 3 in 2012 (medical marijuana) and Question 4 in 2016 (recreational marijuana).

“My struggle is with safety and the message we give kids,” Woodland said. “But we are almost in direct opposition to other actions by this Council. We approved additional liquor licenses and people drive to Watertown to consume alcohol and leave. And the Arsenal Center for the Arts – we literally just gave a new liquor license.

“I don’t see medical marijuana facility as any more of a danger than other establishments. There is no opposition to alcohol and there is no medical need. There are people here in pain and this helps them.”

While sometimes voters will come up with strange decisions, Council Vice President and District C Councilor Vincent Piccirilli said that the letters and calls he received were about 2 to 1 in favor of a medical marijuana dispensary. He added that he believes the town has done as much as it can to stop sale of recreational marijuana by Natural Selections by getting them to enter a binding contract.

Piccirilli said he supports programs to prevent use of marijuana by youth, but added that it will not take medical or recreational sales of marijuana for teens to get access to the drug. Piccirilli, a parent of a high schooler, saud he has heard teens in Watertown already have access to marijuana without a dispensary in town.

No matter which way the council voted, Sideris said, half the people would be angered and half would have a smile on their face. He voted against both the medical and recreational marijuana ballot questions, but he supported the facility in Watertown.

“We tightened this up a lot. Is this a panacea for me? No,” Sideris said.

He said that with other facilities opening in the area, Sideris said he does not believe the facility will create a big traffic problem.

The Council voted 6-3 to support issuing the Letter of Non-Opposition, with Kounelis, Feltner and Dattoli in opposition. The letter includes the provision that Natural Selections cannot come back to request permission to sell recreational marijuana and also agreed that it would not offer delivery, as other dispensaries do.

With the letter, Natural Selections will be able to apply for the license from the state Department of Public Health and then go to the Watertown Planning and Zoning boards to get a special permit to operate the medical marijuana dispensary.

8 thoughts on “Split Town Council Won’t Stand in Way of Medical Marijuana Dispensary

  1. Wow… just WOW… mind totally blown just reading that this kind of mentality still exists! It’s like going back in a time machine…

    “Councilor at-large Michael Dattoli said he worries about marijuana being a gateway drug, and said he knows people who have struggled with drug use and they also used marijuana at one time.

    He is also uneasy about the location of the dispensary. He was at Target recently and said he could see the proposed location, and it is right across from Friendly’s, which caters to CHILDREN and families.

    “It is very close to Filippello Park, very close to where the Watertown CHILDREN’S Theatre is,” Dattoli said. “And they are talking about at the Arsenal Yards [the Arsenal Mall] putting in a movie theater or bowling alley – places where CHILDREN congregate.”


  2. Henry – if you look at the mass legislation it is all about buffer zones. Council is right to bring up the 500 foot distance from where children congregate. Do your homework.
    Buffer Zone. One opportunity for municipalities to exercise local control over the placement of RMDs in
    their community is the setting of a buffer zone. The Regulations, 105 CMR 725.110(A)(14), state:
    A RMD shall comply with all local requirements regarding siting, provided however that
    if no local requirements exist, a RMD shall not be sited within a radius of five hundred
    feet of a school, daycare center, or any facility in which children commonly congregate.
    The 500 foot distance under this section is measured in a straight line from the nearest
    point of the facility in question to the nearest point of the proposed RMD.

    • I did my homework, perhaps you should pay more attention to yours…

      “The Department interprets a “facility in which children commonly congregate” to include facilities in which children are gathered for a particular purposes in a structured and scheduled manner or which are
      dedicated to the use of children, such as playgrounds, youth services programs, day care centers, youth sports facilities, dance schools, and gymnastic schools. It includes a private home housing a family day care center, but not a private home wh
      ere children happen to live.IT DOES NOT INCLUDE OTHER FACILITIES SUCH AS ICE CREAM SHOPS, WHERE CHILDREN MAY HAPPEN TO CONGREGATE, but not in a structured, scheduled manner”.

      By that definition, it would also include the proposed bowling alley and movie theater, plus if I recall correctly, from the blueprints of the Arsenal Yards development, both are located well beyond the 500′ buffer.

      Regardless, the buffer zone is not mandated or required by law, its only offered as a suggestion to exercise local control over the location of RMD’s. Using children as an excuse, or shall I say fostering the unnecessary fears and concerns of parents that their CHILDREN might have to be exposed to such a facility, is fear mongering rubbish.

  3. Childrens theater falls into the of youth services program category and a park is a playground. I do not know the distance from these locations but I assume you would like a gentlemans club and gun store close by too. It is not an appropriate block for what will soon be a recreational marijuana sales location either.

  4. The Children’s Theater is over 3/4 of a mile away, and Filippello Park is over 800′ away.

    The “gentleman’s club” I can take or leave, a gun store I’d more than welcome, and quite frankly, I don’t get why anyone would have a problem with one opening here (there was Ivanhoes on Main St. just outside Watertown Square, but it close decades ago).

    Anyhow, you will be happy to know that ‘Natural Selections’ has decided to withdraw it’s proposal (no confirmation on this)…

    “!!!!! The Community Meeting scheduled for tonight, March 30, 2017 at Town Hall about a proposed Medical Marijuana Dispensary has been CANCELED.

    The Petitioner has confirmed by an Email just received by the Department of Community Development & Planning that they do not intend to go forward with a Dispensary at 36 Arlington Street.”


  5. Henry,
    I voted against the letter of support on Tuesday for several reasons, beyond what is mentioned in this article. During the meeting, I acknowledged the fact that hemp was historically an important commodity and that a negative stigma only became attached to cannabis and users (versus alcohol and tobacco) as a result of past generation’s views towards various cultures (African-American musicians, immigrants from Mexico, etc). I also stated that I agree marijuana should be decriminalized, although let’s be mindful of the fact that it is still a schedule one drug at the Federal level. I think it is great that people can cultivate plants in their own homes here in Massachusetts. I even voted yes on Medical Marijuana in 2012. However, the writing is on the wall now that Question 4 passed in 2016. This will be a retail store in less than two years and that is a game changer, particularly because so much is unknown at this point. Given the fact that medical marijuana is still not reimbursable or covered by health insurance in any state indicates that this is still not ready for prime time. We also have two public safety employee unions that recently settled contracts that added the drug testing provision (which includes marijuana). Talk about mixed signals.

    Also, I did not state that marijuana is absolutely a gateway drug, and did not mean to elicit fear around the drug. Instead, I referenced that there are studies all over the map and there are many confounds to consider on the correlation / causation issue – for example, someone might already be engaging in riskier behaviors such as not wearing a seatbelt while driving, etc. These risk takers may move from one drug to a more dangerous drug, certainly not all. However, the Boston Globe ran an article last fall about this and I think the most interesting study conducted involved rats exposed to THC and their tendency to later self-administer more heroin than the non-THC cohort. The point is that none of the research is definitive.

    I also will not discount what I have seen and experienced in my own personal life from the people I care about that have chosen to use marijuana. Some died as a result of other drug dependancies, and I can say for certain they began using marijuana at a very young age prior to any other illicit substances. I laugh at the nonsense and propaganda that Reefer Madness and Dragnet tried to suggest, however there is nothing funny about losing a friend or family member either physically or mentally at the hands of any drug addiction. No one I know has ever overdosed from marijuana, and many never move on to anything else, however you are most likely not a professor of psychiatry or a neuroscientist; therefor you probably don’t have much to go on either. There are many of these professionals (some right here in Watertown) that say it is naive to think marijuana is a safe drug. I took the time to speak with some of them during the past few weeks, and I apologize if I didn’t get the opportunity to speak with you about it as well.

    I did in fact reference the proximity of Friendly’s, however only in response to the various fallacies that were stated during the evening that 23 Elm Street is somehow hidden away and secluded. In reality , it is very visible and is only a raised pedestrian crosswalk away from becoming a connection to the retail environment of the Watertown and Arsenal malls. From what I hear, I know there are many that are not comfortable with the idea of people coming and going at this location given the new hotel and future Arsenal Yards, etc.

    The other piece is that this will be a recreational marijuana retail outlet in the next two years. It will no longer be a medical marijuana dispensary – and likely the state gets to decide, not the town or local government. Rather than rush to open the door to this dispensary, I would much prefer we hold off and wait to find out what exactly the regulations will look like as this all comes together in the next few months at the state level. With all of the development that is about to break ground in the East End (and I am sure we will be seeing more proposals soon for other RMUD properties), what is the rush to get this in place here and now?

    Salil, you are right about other businesses that may have a negative impact on a community. No one ever seems to want a casino in their backyard either.

    For those that did not attend, the meeting and discussion can be found on WCATV’s under the government tab (wcatv.org).

    Michael Dattoli

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