AYER -- A public hearing Thursday night focused on whether the Planning Board should recommend a moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries here. But keeping speakers on the topic proved to be a challenge for Chairman Mark Fermanian.

"This meeting is on the moratorium only, not the merits of marijuana. I'd like to stick to the issue," the chairman declared at the start of the meeting and repeated many times during two hours of public comment.

The Planning Board vote, which was unanimous, was to recommend at the June 24 Special Town Meeting, a 90-day moratorium to give officials time for further study. The state's attorney general has ruled that communities may adopt moratoriums for 12 to 18 months but may not ban the dispensaries.

Shirley resident John Hillier wants to open a medical marijuana dispensary at 31 Central Avenue and told the Planning Board that a moratorium would hurt him by giving competitors, including those from outside the area, the opportunity to apply for licenses.

So far, there are no dispensaries operating in the state, although officials say they expect the first ones to open before the end of the year.

Roughly 20 people, including town officials and residents, packed the selectmen's meeting for the public hearing. The warrant article was drafted by the town's attorney, but it may be amended during the town meeting. Under state law, up to 35 dispensaries may be located in the state, with up to five per county.

State laws are stringent: only one patient is allowed in the building at a time, visits are by appointment only, and patients must have a prescription from their physician.

During the Planning Board meeting, officials said they were recommending a moratorium to get more information.

"We just voted this in and bang, we're gonna do it?" said Planning Board member Jim Lucchesi. "We have to understand what the effect of it is."

Planning Board member Morris Babcock agreed.

"There is a lot that's unknown," he said. "I definitely believe we can't have that information today."

Some residents attending the hearing found it difficult to separate the moratorium from their feelings about marijuana.

"Why doesn't the hospital dispense it? A pot store in town is not a good idea," said a woman who identified herself as Elizabeth and said she grew up in town in the 70s.

Former selectman Frank Maxant argued against the moratorium, saying the new law was an opportunity for a small business.

"If we destroy this, most likely later a big business will come in," Maxant said. "He (John Hillier) is an Ayer native; if Ayer gets one of these, we can be one of the top ten. He catches the wave at the beginning of this industry."

Police Chief William Murray told the board that he had read the state regulations that apply to his department, about 50 pages.

"I don't have a lot of concerns, just a few," Murray said. "It's just the unknown. I think that's what everybody is afraid of. My concern is proximity from the library, about 300 feet. It's a place where children might congregate.

Under the state law, dispensaries may not be located within 500 feet of a school, daycare center or other facility where there are children.

Resident Christine Logan, a mother of four who has lived in town for 21 years, said she worries about crime associated with a dispensary. She told the Planning Board she had done her homework and read from a prepared report.

"Having more time gives us a chance for the best location in town," Logan said. "I don't think the first person who comes in should get the license."

Logan said she wanted to know why Hillier hadn't considered opening a dispensary at a hospital.

"Why make a rash decision?" she asked.

Pharmacist Mike Bastien, owner and operator of the Medicine Shoppe, a downtown pharmacy, was against the moratorium. He even brought a friend who is an oncology nurse to talk to the board about how medicinal cannabis relieves cancer pain.

"Everybody's got this thing in their head where they see people smoking but they don't talk about the dose. When you burn it, you get a euphoric effect; when you take the plant and make it into powder, the patient can take higher doses with no euphoric effect," Bastien said. "All I am saying is make a strong educational decision; I came here to open the door."

On Friday at 8:30 a.m., during a Board of Selectmen's meeting, officials agreed by unanimous vote to place an article on the warrant at the June 24 Town Meeting asking voters to place a one-year moratorium on dispensaries.

Hillier, the businessman who wants to open a local dispensary was among several people who showed up for the meeting. So was his attorney, Chris Lilly.

Whether the town institutes a moratorium, and for how long, is up the voters, said Selectman Chairman Pauline Conley.

During the meeting, Lilly raised his hand, requesting to ask a question about the warrant article. But Conley declined to allow public comment saying business was limited to the two items on the agenda, the moratorium and a request to extend employment for 13 days for the assistant tax collector.