As Vineyard towns convene for annual town meetings this spring, most will be grappling with new bylaws in the face of a state law legalizing medical marijuana.
With ongoing discussion about Islandwide coordination over how to address the new law, five of the six Vineyard towns will vote this spring on whether to adopt bylaws prohibiting public marijuana consumption and imposing a one-year moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries in all zoning districts. The moratorium is meant to give towns time to come up with their own regulations before marijuana dispensaries can open.
There’s little doubt that a medical marijuana dispensary will come to the Vineyard: under the new law, each county is required to have one dispensary, though no more than five are allowed per county. And there might be a receptive community, as 71 per cent of Island voters last fall approved the legalization of medicinal marijuana for patients with specific medical conditions.
But though the law went into effect Jan. 1, the state issued draft regulations last week, with further public comment being solicited until final regulations come out in May. The draft regulations define a 60-day supply as 10 ounces of the finished product in leaf form, and the state Department of Health will have responsibility for the medical marijuana program; local involvement is not required. However, local governments can pass regulations that do not conflict with state law.
Earlier this month, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said towns cannot ban medical marijuana treatment centers, but can adopt zoning bylaws for them.
During the wait to get regulations underway, Island towns tackled concerns about how to regulate dispensaries on a local level. There was some talk about locating a dispensary near the hospital, in the Oak Bluffs health care district, but the hospital said this week that won’t be happening.
“Even though the state says it’s legal for Massachusetts, the feds says no,” hospital president Tim Walsh told the Gazette Wednesday. Because of Medicare, he said, the hospital has to certify that everything they do meets federal law.
“It’s not even a starter,” he said. “I don’t think we would anyway, but we really can’t,” he said. Mr. Walsh said the hospital is not part of discussions about Island dispensaries.
But the issue will be discussed during town meetings next Tuesday, as it is on the special town meeting warrant in Tisbury and Edgartown and the annual town meeting warrant in Oak Bluffs.
At their annual town meeting in May Aquinnah voters, too will debate a public consumption bylaw and a moratorium; West Tisbury has scheduled a special town meeting for May 21 to discuss the same issues.
The public consumption bylaw would ban public consumption of marijuana from streets, playgrounds, beaches and any area owned by or under the control of towns, with violations carrying a $300 fine.
In an effort to allow towns time to consider where medical marijuana dispensaries should be located and how they should be regulated, most towns are seeking a one-year moratorium on medical marijuana in all zoning areas. The moratorium would be in effect for one year or until the towns enact other zoning amendments about medical marijuana.
Chilmark is the only town that has not discussed any local regulation.
“The voters of the town of Chilmark overwhelmingly supported medical marijuana,” Chilmark town administrator Tim Carroll told the Gazette. He said that unless something else comes up, he doubts the selectmen will take up the subject.
The issue was debated at two tense Edgartown planning board meetings over the last month, as proponents of the dispensaries argued that the yearlong moratorium was too long. Planning board members said the town needed time to come up with regulations and do them right.
“We’re not trying to stop anything. We’re trying to regulate it the right way so we don’t have to come back in here and redo what we just did,” said planning board member Michael McCourt.
Jordan Wallace, an Oak Bluffs resident who has started a nonprofit group to open a dispensary, suggested that the town should amend the one-year moratorium to a shorter time period, saying a year was too long now that the state had released regulations. The board considered the suggestion, but a motion failed to gain the four out of five votes needed.