As the Massachusetts Department of Public Health scrambles to write regulations for the medical marijuana law that went into effect Jan. 1, towns are preparing for their own kind of scramble amid the prospect of medical marijuana dispensaries in counties across the state.
They don’t have long, Martha’s Vineyard Youth Task Force coordinator Theresa Manning warned the Dukes County commission this week. State public health officials have 120 days from the first of the year to establish its regulations for the new law, and towns have the same time frame. Some towns are planning to adopt zoning bylaws that prohibit dispensaries, although Vineyard town and planning officials have just begun to discuss the issue.
Mrs. Manning said the primary concern of the task force is to maintain the health, safety and proper education of children in terms of alcohol and substance use.
“Right now towns haven’t drawn up proper bylaws or things that can manage these dispensaries in a responsible way,” she said. “We want to help towns focus on not being reactionary but taking a moment to plan and set things up to prevent confusion and mayhem.”
She said some towns in the state have banned or placed moratoriums on dispensaries. Others are writing bylaws that regulate advertising and product displays for dispensaries and set limits on their distance from schools, churches, rehabilitation centers and municipal buildings.
“We don’t want to keep the [dispensaries] out, but we want to do this in a way where it’s not next door to Ben and Bill’s [ice cream emporium] or next to a school,” she said.
The law, which was approved by voters in November in a statewide ballot initiative, allows doctors to prescribe
a 60-day supply of medical marijuana for conditions that include cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. Marijuana can only be sold by a medical marijuana dispensary; each county is required to have at least one but no more than five dispensaries.
The state still must determine what constitutes a 60-day supply of marijuana, and must establish dispensary application fees, rules for cultivation and storage of marijuana, rules for treatment centers and registration cards.
Currently, a written note from a doctor for approved medical conditions qualifies as a medical marijuana registration card.
At a meeting Thursday hosted by the Youth Task Force, discussion continued among law enforcement officials, teachers and one town administrator.
“Oak Bluffs is simply ill-prepared to deal with this,” said Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour. “We don’t have a town planner and our zoning laws probably stink for building houses, never mind pot stores.”
In December the task force sent a letter to the six Island towns and the county asking them to join an appeal from the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s request to delay implementation of the law until July.
But Mrs. Manning said this week that the delay will not happen.
She said the current law is riddled with “gray areas and loopholes.”
The law requires dispensaries to be set up as nonprofits, meaning they will not pay taxes. And because medical marijuana is still prohibited under federal law, the nonprofits cannot be funded by a bank and must run as cash businesses, Mrs. Manning said.
“Not even reflective on the substance, cash businesses like that who are dealing with high volumes of cash have caused a lot of problems for towns — break-ins, crime theft — that need to be considered,” she said.
She urged county commissioners to work with the towns to begin crafting bylaws and ordinances, stressing again that there must be at least one dispensary on the Island. And she noted another loophole in the law: if there is no access to a dispensary within 60 miles of a patient in need, the state may issue a cultivation registration to allow a patient or caregiver to grow their own limited number of plants.
“We could either have a dispensary that we could, as a community, make sure is being monitored and maintained in a responsible way,” she said. “Or rather we have people apply for hardship permits where you can grow for up to six clients. We are talking grow- houses,” Mrs. Manning said.
She concluded: “Martha’s Vineyard voted 72 per cent in favor of having medical marijuana, which is higher than the state. We’re not trying to swim upstream and say otherwise, but we certainly don’t want it to impact our kids and change the culture of the Island.”
Commissioner Tristan Israel agreed. “Our communities need to get it together to try and address this,” he said. “Right now there are no regulations on the Island, and it’s sort of a wild, wild west.”
A story in last Friday’s Gazette about the new medical marijuana law contained an incomplete quote from Chilmark police chief Brian Cioffi and erroneously suggested he was responding to a question about plans for enforcement. Mr. Cioffi said: “The reality is there is marijuana on Martha’s Vineyard. People smoke it. It’s socially acceptable. We had a democratic process. People have said, 72 per cent, we’re fine with it. They voted last time to decriminalize it. I don’t agree with it. But that’s what our democratic process has set up. As a society we have allowed this to happen.”
The Gazette regrets any misimpression about the chief’s position on the law.