Will Local Bans On Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Hold Up Legally?

In this Nov. 7 file photo, medical marijuana is packaged for sale in a dispensary in Seattle. Massachusetts voters approved of medical marijuana on Election Day. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

In this Nov. 7 file photo, medical marijuana is packaged for sale in a dispensary in Seattle. Massachusetts voters approved of medical marijuana on Election Day. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

BOSTON — Medical marijuana dispensaries haven’t opened yet in Massachusetts — and some communities in the state hope to keep it that way.

Even before Massachusetts voters passed Question 3, which legalized medical marijuana, some cities and towns began researching how they could prevent medical marijuana dispensaries from opening within their borders. Now, some of those communities have passed zoning bylaws banning dispensaries, and they’re waiting to hear whether the state attorney general’s office will approve them.

Melrose, Reading and Wakefield, which comprise a regional health district, have passed identical dispensary bans, and Attorney General Martha Coakley must issue her opinion on Wakefield’s bylaw by March 21. WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with the health director for those communities, Ruth Clay, about why they oppose dispensaries.

Ruth Clay: None of the three communities have a moral opposition to medical marijuana. The citizens of the community certainly want people who feel that they have a medical necessity or benefit to be able to access that. The main issue is basically the devil’s in the details. And the way that Question 3 was written, there is a lot of unanswered questions. And we don’t have the regulations from the state health department.

If the regulations come out that there’s reasonable dispensing, and it tightly regulates the use of home-grown and access to youth and people who don’t have a real medical need, then I think the communities will reexamine that. But these three communities have strong histories of substance abuse prevention work. Reading and Melrose both have a history of federal funding, and they’re called Drug Free Communities grants. Substance abuse prevention for youth is a big issue for these communities. So having a medical marijuana dispensing site in their community that would be available to their youth basically goes against all the work that the communities have been doing.

Sacha Pfeiffer: And you think that actually distinguishes Melrose and Wakefield and Reading in a way different than any other community concerned about substance abuse?

Not any other community, but from some communities. There are other communities that spend a lot of time and effort and money on dealing with substance abuse prevention, but not every community does.

As you’ve pointed out, the [regulations] have not been written yet by the Department of Public Health, but these dispensaries are intended to be tightly regulated so that only people with a doctor’s approval could be getting medical marijuana. Why are you worried that youth might end up getting access when they shouldn’t?

Because of the experience of other states that have already passed similar kinds of laws. The statistics show a significant increase in youths’ use of marijuana once those laws went into effect.

Do you know, though, that there is a definite connection between the rise in marijuana among young people and the arrival of medical marijuana dispensaries in those communities?

Yes. The increase in youth marijuana use increased dramatically in Colorado and California when those laws passed.

And you believe because the medical marijuana dispensaries came to town, that meant more availability of marijuana for young people?

Sure. That was the only variable that changed.

As a local public health official, what is your personal opinion about the benefits versus possible costs of having marijuana dispensaries in town?

I don’t think my personal opinion is relevant. I mean, it’s really what each community wants to do.

Well I guess I should say, then, your professional opinion. I mean, certainly many voters approved this because they felt that it was a real public health need. Do you have doubts about the medicinal benefits of medical marijuana?

I’d like to see more research being done. With someone who’s seriously ill, with using chemotherapy, with nausea, I think it’s pretty clear that there are components of marijuana — the THC — that does help. I certainly don’t want to withhold that medication from them.

But by having zoning restrictions, that would obviously make it harder for people who are suffering to get it if they think it could help them.

I don’t think it does. It’s not going to be that there’s going to be a dispensing site in every city and town in Massachusetts. And people go from one town to another to grocery shop and go to their pharmacy as it is.

In that sense, is there a Not In My Back Yard element to this?

I think there are some communities that are better suited for it. Especially communities that have large oncology centers.

So you think maybe have the medical marijuana dispensary be located near the hospital or the oncology center?

Those are where the patients will be.

Although there is a hospital in Wakefield, isn’t there?


In Melrose.

Melrose-Wakefield, yes.

So, in that sense, would Melrose be a good place for a medical marijuana dispensary?

I said in general terms that that might be a good place. But the mayor has been clear that this is not the best place for medical marijuana. It’s not in keeping with the vision for this community. If the state regulations come out in a way that really addresses all the details, I think that’s something that Melrose will definitely look at. Because, as I said, we’re not morally opposed to medical marijuana. We just want to make sure it’s done in a safe and appropriate way to protect the community.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts opposes these bylaws banning medical marijuana dispensaries. Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with one of its staff attorneys in Boston, Sarah Wunsch, about why the ACLU considers the bans illegal:

Sarah Wunsch: Cities and towns are not allowed to pass laws that are at odds [with] or undermine state law, and we think this kind of total ban on the medical marijuana dispensaries is directly at odds with what the voters chose to do in approving Question 3 for the humanitarian provision of medical marijuana. And part of what was approved was setting up dispensaries at the direction of the state Department of Public Health, which has been given the authority to decide where they should go.

Sacha Pfeiffer: What if a town or a city doesn’t totally ban a dispensary from within its borders, but just partially bans it from certain areas? Is the ACLU willing to accept that?

You know, we’re not there yet. If that question came up, it depends on how extensive the ban is. But right now what we are dealing with and what the attorney general’s office is dealing with are total bans. And I think that, without question, is an effort to undermine and stop the operation of medical marijuana and what the voters approved when they passed Question 3.

So how much authority do they have here to create zoning restrictions of some type if they’re not totally comfortable with medical marijuana dispensaries?

The limits aren’t established by each city or town acting on its own, deciding, “We want it here” or “We don’t want it here.” Unlike when the state legislature passed the law that allowed needle exchange programs, the legislature specifically wrote in a provision telling DPH that they had to have local approval first. That’s not true of Question 3; there is no requirement of local approval. But now we see cities and towns saying, ‘Oh, well, not here.’ That’s just part of the opposition to the notion of medical marijuana.

We are seeing some communities where people say, ‘We support the idea of sick people getting access to medical marijuana, but we’re very uncomfortable that the details of the law haven’t been written yet and we’re worried that maybe the regulations won’t be tight enough and, for example, young people will get their hands on marijuana much more easily.’ Do you think communities have a right to be concerned about that?

I think they have a right to weigh in with the Department of Public Health about what kinds of restrictions they would like to see and what they would like the regulations to say. But I don’t think they have the right to erect roadblocks that will make it impossible to site a dispensary in their community.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    “It’s not in keeping with the vision for this community”

    • http://www.facebook.com/DeaconGreen Jeffrey Dale

      Why? Marijuana is an EXIT drug not a Gateway drug. Marijuana enabled me to detox and leave methadone alone. It can and will do the same for others suffering from any substance abuse. It’s much easier to replace a bad drug with a safe, non-addictive substance rather than total abstinence. Rehab clinic’s have a whole new market using cannabis as therapy.

      • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

        but that would be terrible for the drug companies and doctors!

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Hunt/100003205282238 Kevin Hunt

          ha ha…..”Ask Your Doctor What Oxycontin Can Do For You”

          • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

            meanwhile they sell prescription drugs in that town that say on the label “may cause suicidal thoughts or actions”

    • MassCentral420

      Who’s vision, right?

  • seilerbird

    Teenage use of marijuana has not changes one bit since medical marijuana has become legal. Read the facts here:


    • Guest

      Ready to call us ?

  • http://www.facebook.com/DeaconGreen Jeffrey Dale

    “Do you know, though, that there is a definite connection between the rise in marijuana among young people and the arrival of medical marijuana dispensaries in those communities? Yes. The increase in youth marijuana use increased dramatically in Colorado and California when those laws passed.” NOT TRUE! Wait until they learn that marijuana is an exit drug not a gateway drug. In fact it is an herb with psychoactive properties, if it has over .3% THC otherwise its just HEMP.

  • Not Buying It

    Youth use rates in Massachusetts have been rising each year since decrim. Get some updated youth behavior risk data — locally — from right here at the Metrowest Health Foundation. And new evidence of physical and mental health harms associated with this drug is mounting. This is not a benign drug. Product placement online and in the media is pushing use rates up. Massachusetts now has the highest youth use rates in the nation. The marijuana lobby is complicit in the rising levels of abuse of this drug. Its good for their business–a generation of dependant customers. And ultimately public dollars will once again be required to clean up this coming public health mess.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Smith/100003032292085 Mike Smith

      The Metrowest Health Foundation is a huge money making machine with over $100 million in assets.


      Also, the claim that more youth are using more pot is misleading at best. Their site advertises a claim that there is a 23% rise in recent pot use but the article points out that this is actually a rise in ALCOHOL abuse.

      “Massachusetts’ rates of current youth alcohol and marijuana use are higher than the nation and in some MetroWest communities the rates of marijuana use exceed state averages. In MetroWest, 39% of high school students have consumed alcohol in the past 30 days and 23% have consumed five or more drinks in a row within the past 30 days (“binge” drinking).”

      Spreading false and misleading information is how they convince people to donate money and millions of dollars have been blindly given to this organization over the years, padding the pockets of the board members and their cronies. They make a good portion of their money off of drug prohibition and if pot is ever legalized, their profits will go down. Their goal is NOT the health of the public, their goal is MONEY. Using anti Marijuana propoganda, they convince parents to bring in teens suspected of drug abuse and the more they get, the more money they get. These teens don’t come in voluntarily, they are forced to come in by their parents or after getting caught with pot and it’s part of their sentence by a school or drug court. Where is the cry to ban Alcohol or tobacco from MHF? These are abused much more by youth yet they are legal, this is why Marijuana should be legalized and regulated like alcohol and agencies like MHF could focus on real problems like Alcohol and tobacco addictions which are far worse.

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      what other drug legal or not is cannabis more dangerous than? i have not seen any ads for cannabis and who is paying for product placement? what “public health mess” do you forsee? if what they said about medical cannabis increasing youth use rates is true should not those states have higher use rates?

    • MassCentral420

      You mean like alcohol and tobacco,,, How many liquor stores and establishments do you have in these community’s,, It’s either all or nothing as far as bans should go.

      I mean, we do want to save the children!

    • Al Dorman28

      Flagged, you’re a spammer for your dopey rehab.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Hunt/100003205282238 Kevin Hunt

      I see why you go by the name “not buying it”. No one believes your reefer madness lies.

      Researchers compared teens in Rhode Island, where medical marijuana was legalized in 2006, with adolescents in Massachusetts, which doesn’t allow medical marijuana sales. The analysis included 32,570 teens who completed surveys on drug use between 1997 and 2009. The study showed no statistically significant differences regarding marijuana use between the two states in any year. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/nov/02/news/la-heb-teens-marijuana-20111102

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Hunt/100003205282238 Kevin Hunt

      Canadian researchers have estimated the following social costs per user per year: Alcohol $165.11, Tobacco $822.26, Marijuana $20.50 Source: The costs of substance abuse in Canada 2002. Ottawa: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

    • ozzy

      lies and biased hysterical rhetoric were’nt you taught to tell the truth lets hear proof of these remarks

  • AnnOnaMice

    If these towns don’t want medical marijuana dispensaries in their communities, let’s respect that… let’s also have these communities respect that they deserve NONE of the very likely MILLIONS of dollars that will be collected in local sales taxes, even though their own residents will be leaving their towns to buy marijuana, and most likely many other goods and services when they head out to get their medicine.

    As far as the supposed rise in youth use where medical marijuana is distributed, that’s a no-brainer… just as doctors prescribe minors oxycodone and other substances, they get medical marijuana cards, too.

    But there is absolutely NO measurable rise in illicit youth use in these localities… so I’ll call HOGWASH on Ruth Clay for (perhaps unknowingly) lying through her teeth.

  • http://twitter.com/SurrahBallz SurrahB

    But cities and towns are allowed to pass stricter laws on smoking tobacco in public places which technically would be “at odds” with chapter 270 sec22. How would more restrictive laws on medical marijuana be viewed any differently?

  • MassCentral420

    “If these towns don’t want medical marijuana dispensaries in their communities, let’s respect that.”

    How did question 3 fare in those towns?

    .In each of the towns over 50% of the voters are in favor of medical marijuana?


    How can an “educated” woman be so ignorant and expect others to listen???

  • MassCentral420

    I had a prohibitionist ask me why I “NEEDED” Marijuana,,,

    I said I don’t NEED marijuana,,, just something to amuse my mind and calm my thoughts.

    He said, well why don’t you just get high on life.

    In said I do and that marijuana is part of life, just like sex, it is part of life.

    I mean, imagine if all there was in sex was just one position,, would that be “fun”.

    The prohibitionist looked at me all puzzled,,, There’s more than one position???

    Life,, enjoy all of it!

  • Bay State Cannabis Co.

    Just curious how many “package stores” they have over there in Wakefield?

    • ME

      I think we have 5 I’m not really a drinker. That’s fine you can’t ban care givers and im sure Wakefield will have a few.

      • Mr niceguy

        This is true I know a few people who got there written recommendation and they use care givers in the north shore (right now a care giver is the only way of obtaining MMJ with out growing it your self). These people prefer care givers to dispensary’s because of the private nature. With a care giver no one knows who it is and where he is unless you talk about it. This link will give you a post from NECN it will explain how and where to get your written recommendation. http://www.necn.com/02/25/13/Some-medical-marijuana-users-get-jump-on/landing_mobile.html?blockID=832869&feedID=11106  your welcom :-)  go get it so you are no longer are a

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003688612019 Michael Richards

    Ruth Clay does not cite her source that medical marijuana laws lead to increased use, but there is a pretty good study that appears to oppose her view: http://depts.washington.edu/phenom/docs/Anderson_Hansen_Rees_2012.pdf.

  • Dennis Naughton

    This seems to be a predictable tail-gunner tactic to overturn the popular vote. It won’t stand unless the legislature somehow gets involved.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100005492913365 Facebook User

    Are you Interested in
    obtaining your Medical Marijuana Card sooner than later ? Canna Care
    Docs based in the Boston area can help guide you in the right
    direction. We are not a dispensary , we are a Dr. evaluation office.
    If you are 18+ , and are ready for more information on your
    qualification status, call us @ 781 – 382 – 8053 . ( We now have
    a FB page : /pages/CANNA-CARE-DOCS-MA/564346113584079?fref=ts

  • ME

    Today they ruled that Wakefield can not ban dispensary’s. I still think care givers are the way to go. But its a win. If your town does ban them you can use the hardship to grow or find a care giver. Cannamed has not turned any one down for a recommendation so as Mr Nice Guy said in his post go get you recommendation before they implement rules.

  • babycakes

    just because medical marijuana becomes legal doesnt make more ppl smoke it.. That is More ppl came out of the closet to admit they smoked..Not every one will admit they smoke… I bet ur doc smokes but would never admit it now would he or ur teacher at school!! There are millions of ppl that smoke so just because its made legal doesnt mean more will smoke just mean more ppl r being more open n honest about it…

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