By Barbara Taormina
City councillors are pushing to put together an ordinance to regulate retail marijuana shops ahead of July 1, when it becomes legal in Massachusetts to sell marijuana to adults for recreational use. The Ordinance Committee is reviewing a draft ordinance from the city’s Cannabis Review Committee that outlines zoning requirements, buffer zones and local operating agreements. Ward 3 Councillor John Matheson has also proposed a series of measures on permitting and siting retail marijuana establishments, and City Planner Michelle Romero is recommending a special permit process overseen by the Planning Board or the City Council.
“There is a lot to hash out,” said Ward 1 Councillor Peg Crowe, who heads up the Cannabis Review Committee. “And time is of the essence. We need to get this in place by July 1.”
Councillors generally agree that marijuana establishments, which include retail stores, growing operations, businesses that manufacture cannabis products and testing labs, should be limited to the city’s industrial and highway business zones. But there are some differences of opinion on how much space should be between those establishments and other people and places in the neighborhood. No one seems to disagree with a proposal for a 500-foot buffer zone between marijuana businesses and public and private schools. The Cannabis Review Committee is recommending a 50-foot buffer between marijuana establishments and private homes. The committee also wants to ban businesses from abutting houses of worship, religious facilities and daycare centers.
Matheson has proposed strengthening those regulations by adding a 500-foot buffer between marijuana establishments and the city’s Residential A zones, and a 100-foot buffer around public parks or the bike path. “We need to protect the interests of our most vulnerable populations,” he said.
But the more complicated question facing the Ordinance Committee involves local permitting. The state’s Cannabis Control Commission has set up a licensing process with three different stages of review of business plans, financing, background checks and management procedures.
The first stage requires license applicants to submit a host-community agreement between a proposed marijuana establishment and the city or town where it intends to locate. The host-community agreement requires an applicant to hold a community outreach meeting and to provide a description of the applicant’s intent to make sure that a marijuana establishment will comply with local ordinances. The Ordinance Committee hasn’t figured out yet who would be responsible for negotiating a host-community agreement between Malden and a marijuana business applicant.
The Cannabis Review Committee has recommended that the host-community agreement be the local permitting process. But Romero said a host-community agreement is tied to a city or town’s ability to collect a 3 percent impact fee for regulating marijuana businesses in addition to a 3 percent local sales tax. “It’s not the same as a special permit granted by a local decision-making authority,” she said. And a community outreach meeting is not the same as a public hearing, she added.
“For the City Council to seriously consider abdicating their rights of local control would be unprecedented,” she said.
Matheson has proposed that the Malden Licensing Board be the local license approval authority for marijuana establishments. He has also proposed that the Licensing Board work with the Board of Health. Councillor-at-Large Craig Spadafora also recommended giving the Licensing Board the authority to regulate marijuana businesses just as they regulate alcohol sales in the city. “I think if we model it that way, everything else will fall into place,” he said. “It would be stupid of us not to treat this the same as liquor.”