With second marijuana dispensary request, councillors question if city got zoning right
A little less than two years after adopting zoning to put any medical marijuana dispensaries in either Alewife or NorthPoint, the City Council is wondering if it’s time to rethink the unused Medical Marijuana Overlay Districts entirely.
The notion came up Monday as the council heard a request for Milford Medicinals to operate a dispensary in leased space at 1001 Massachusetts Ave. in Mid-Cambridge, just outside of Harvard Square – and far outside the areas intended by the zoning. The company “has been working diligently to secure a property within” the districts and “has canvassed every available property in those districts, and has been unable to secure a property,” according to its request, presented by Milford chief executive Michael Dundas.
The Milford proposal was forwarded to the council’s Ordinance Committee and to the Planning Board, which councillor Craig Kelley explained was required.
The zoning has already been altered once its short life – when the Greeneway Wellness Foundation, the previous marijuana dispensary to make a run at opening in Cambridge, also couldn’t find a site within either district and asked that Alewife’s be extended by one block to a location that otherwise fit official requirements.
Spot zoning, or citywide
In this case, with the possibility of changing the zoning to accommodate a single building so far away from the existing districts, there is opposition to the Milford Medicinals proposal in part because it amounts to “spot zoning.”
But it begged the question of whether the Marijuana Overlay Districts were working as intended.
“This is the second organization that’s come before us asking for some change in the zoning … saying they can’t find anything in the zones that [we] have created,” said councillor Marc McGovern, who wasn’t on the council when the zoning was approved in December 2013. “I would like to get a legal opinion on the ‘spot zoning’ aspect of this, but I do think we have to take another look at the zones that we created, because it may be they’re not the correct ones.”
His thoughts were supported by Kelley and councillor Nadeem Mazen, who phrased the same thought in different ways: That instead of looking for locations within the Alewife and NorthPoint districts that fit the city’s criteria – such as being more than 500 feet from a school or other place children gather – any location in the city might be suitable for a medical marijuana dispensary if the various criteria are followed.
Public comment Monday suggested even that might not be enough for some.
Sanjoy Mahajan, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who lives near the location for the proposed dispensary, complained that although the regulations set a limit of being at least 500 feet from a school, “there are several facilities not that much farther away,” including the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre School and the Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school.
Those gathering places for youth are about 1,584 and 2,112 feet away, respectively.
“I don’t want my children walking by a medicinal marijuana dispensary. I think it’s not sending a message that’s good for them,” Mahajan said.
Central Square resident and landlord Patrick Barrett said he opposed the proposed facility because he considered it “spot zoning” and feared it would exacerbate the city’s opiate crisis. Speaker Marilyn Wellons acknowledged questions about spot zoning, but said the previous speakers failed to mention the purpose of the facility: pain relief and other treatment for people suffering ailments such as cancer.
It wasn’t to serve “what we would call potheads,” Wellons said. “We have plenty of them around anyway without a medical marijuana dispensary.”
Supporting the mission
McGovern, who said his children get off a bus in Central Square by a needle exchange as it starts business for the day, said having such services in the area had led to a few frank, but age-appropriate conversations.
“Does that thrill me? No. But I believe in the mission. We can’t say we value these things and run away from them because they might be close to where we live,” said McGovern, a social worker in addition to being a city councillor. “Whatever organization comes forward to open a place has to do a heck of a lot of education among folks … people don’t really understand what these facilities are, and there’s a perception they’re going to be head shops. That’s really not at all what these places are like.”
Dundas said he and Milford Medicinals had been out in the neighborhood talking with residents about the location and finding “a pretty strong showing of support” and no stated opposition. He said he went into the council meeting unsure if it was the right time to mention community support. “Obviously it was. I probably should have, and I certainly will next time, when we talk with the Planning Board,” he said.
“The burden is on us to show we’re going to be beneficial to the community and to the neighborhood, and we’re going to do our best to do that,” Dundas said.
None for Middlesex
His company’s dispensary and cultivation facility is under construction in Milford, where he hopes to have a certificate of occupancy in late February to begin growing immediately afterward. The company might be able to start dispensing product there to patients with the proper cards in late summer, he said.
Medical marijuana in Massachusetts was legalized in a November 2012 state ballot question, passing with 63 percent approval. Response was even stronger in Cambridge, where 79 percent of those voting on the question were in favor, or 36,063 voters out of a total 45,627. The law went into effect the following Jan. 1, officially giving each county in Massachusetts at least one treatment center but no more than five, but the state Department of Public Health and individual communities threw up various safeguards, checks and assurances that slowed the process of dispensary openings to a crawl.
There are three statewide after openings this past summer in Salem, Brockton and Taunton out of an initial 181 applications.
Cambridge’s Middlesex County had the most, at 47, but still has no dispensary. The Greeneway Wellness Foundation gave up at the end of last year.