(Denver Post file)

Massachusetts moratoriums may mean long drives for legal marijuana

LOWELL, Mass. — Although retail sales of recreational marijuana can begin in July, many customers across northern Massachusetts may have to travel significant distances or wait several months to acquire the substance.

Moratoriums are becoming widespread, with many towns opting to block any recreational marijuana businesses into late 2018 as a way to buy time for developing zoning and regulation plans. Some, as allowed under the state law legalizing the drug, have opted instead for outright, permanent bans on the businesses.

As a result, only a handful of towns in northern Massachusetts will be able to join the initial wave of recreational sales, a trend that legal marijuana advocates say could have lasting economic repercussions.

Last November, voters across the state approved Question 4, legalizing recreational marijuana, before the Legislature approved some changes regarding local control to the law. The state Cannabis Control Commission is expected to issue regulations in March and allow sales to begin in July.

However, a review of 39 municipalities around Lowell and Fitchburg found that large portions of the area will not be ready or willing to allow sales to begin next summer.

Roughly a third of towns examined have enacted moratoriums through November or December 2018, most of which have been approved at Town Meetings in recent weeks. Several other towns will vote on similar policies in the coming weeks, while half a dozen more have moratoriums into the middle of 2018.

At least nine area towns have banned recreational marijuana businesses.

Local officials argue that these policies are an important way for towns and cities to govern. Many that have enacted moratoriums supported Question 4, and leaders in those communities say the delays give sufficient time to draft regulations after the Commission’s recommendations come out next spring.

“We would freeze everything, and make those decisions over the next year,” Billerica Town Manager John Curran said at an October Town Meeting that approved a moratorium. “It makes all the sense in the world to do.”

A representative for the Commission could not be reached to provide further details on what the regulations will contain.

However, Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the Yes on 4 Coalition, said he believes the state’s recommendations next spring will not have a significant impact on local zoning policies. He argued that moratoriums have negative consequences.

“It’ll do two things: it’ll keep the criminal market in control of marijuana sales, and second, it’ll make these towns have much more difficulty in getting new taxpaying businesses and new jobs,” Borghesani said. “Likely, industry members won’t move into a town that has already taken an adverse action on cannabis sales.”

Only six communities that currently have no moratorium or ban in place: Lowell, Ayer, Fitchburg, Harvard, Leominster and Pepperell.

Those municipalities are scattered across the region, but residents in Wilmington or Dunstable, for example, may face a substantial drive to access a shop.

“We don’t want to see islands of cannabis availability,” Borghesani said. “We want consumers to get legal cannabis fairly close to where they live. That will make it much easier for them to access legal cannabis and it will drive the criminal market out of business.”

Related: Fears mount for California MMJ patients over “cannabis deserts”

At least Lowell and Ayer have begun the process that could lead to sales soon. Lowell city planners have begun drafting ordinances and zoning policies to govern potential dispensaries, which can begin applying for permits now.

Ayer has a prospective candidate: Central Avenue Compassionate Care, operating since 2015. The company’s leadership has publicly expressed interest in opening a separate recreational shop.

Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand said the dispensary’s interest created a unique situation: A ban or moratorium on retail sales would not have prevented CACC from seeking a recreational permit, and selectmen felt that taking no action at all ahead of the summer would create a “free for all” in town.

So Ayer, which approved Question 4 with 57 percent support, instead steered into the interest, allowing CACC and any other interested companies to apply.

To retain some control, Town Meeting approved zoning changes that allow only one recreational license. That policy will go into effect if also approved at a Nov. 28 special town referendum.

Pontbriand said zoning would balance opportunity with caution, allowing Ayer to reap the economic benefits — municipalities can collect a 3 percent tax on recreational sales, and given the lack of businesses in other communities, Ayer is sure to attract wide interest — while still enforcing some limitations.

“I believe that the town is trying to move forward in a proactive way based on the reality that recreational marijuana is going to be legal in Massachusetts,” Pontbriand said.

Via AP member exchange. Information from: The (Lowell, Mass.) Sun