Buffer zone for marijuana dispensaries backed in Boston

By Kay Lazar GLOBE STAFF  MARCH 03, 2016

Marijuana dispensaries in Boston would have to sit at least half-a-mile apart under rules approved Wednesday by the Boston City Council.

The measure is intended to protect neighborhoods from being overrun with pot shops, in the event voters approve a likely November ballot initiative that would legalize recreational use of marijuana, said Councilor-at-large, Michael Flaherty, who sponsored the rule.

“I don’t want to have another Combat Zone. I don’t want to have a pot zone, a marijuana zone,” Flaherty said. “I don’t think one neighborhood should bear the burden of all of that.”

Flaherty said he introduced the buffer zone last year, after hearing from residents and local business owners who were nervous about the prospect of recreational marijuana use. He said he studied the experiences of cities and states that enacted buffer zones after legalizing recreational marijuana use, and found those governments were playing “catch up” because they didn’t act in advance.

“It was a mad scramble to protect local businesses,” Flaherty said. “I don’t want to turn any one neighborhood upside down, and on its head, in a rush for these recreational marijuana shops.”

Flaherty said a buffer zone would translate into better access for patients, because it would force dispensaries to spread out across the city, rather than clumping together in one neighborhood.

The buffer zone must be signed by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and be approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Zoning Commission, before it goes into effect. A Walsh spokeswoman said the mayor will study the measure.

Representatives from the state’s leading medical marijuana patient group and from the trade group representing several medical marijuana dispensaries said they were concerned Boston’s new rule could hamper access for patients and would crimp business for nascent medical marijuana dispensaries.

Nichole Snow, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, said strict state rules governing medical marijuana have meant just six dispensaries have opened statewide since voters approved marijuana for medical use in November 2012.

Snow said patients fear medical marijuana shops could be threatened if recreational dispensaries are approved. The recreational businesses could face less stringent regulations, allowing them to proliferate. And if they quickly snag available spots in Boston, medical shops could be crowded out, especially if the buffer zone becomes law.

“I am a patient. I do not want to go to an adult use facility to get my medicine,” Snow said. She compared the experience to shopping for medicine in a liquor store instead of a local pharmacy.

“I want to go to a facility where the service providers are treating me with the service I need as a patient with a debilitating condition,” she said.

Kevin Gilnack, executive director of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association, said state rules already require medical marijuana dispensaries to find appropriately zoned locations and get a letter of approval, or a less enthusiastic statement of “nonopposition” from community leaders. That provides a “strong role for the city in determining how dispensaries are located,” he said.

“We appreciate the city’s interest in ensuring that dispensaries are available in neighborhoods throughout Boston,” Gilnack said in a statement. “We hope that the city will strike a balance between creating onerous restrictions and protecting the ability for future dispensaries to provide patients with the access to cannabis medicines that they need.”

Councilor Andrea Campbell was one of three councilors who voted against the buffer zone.

Without knowing whether voters will approve recreational use this fall, and how state rules might be written to regulate that use, Campbell said it was premature to pass the new city measure.

“I felt like we were putting the cart before the horse,” Campbell said. “Patients fought long and hard to have access to [medical marijuana]. This raises concerns about us taking actions without understanding the details . . . of the rules we are making.”

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