By Katina Caraganis
As the Department of Public Health announced Friday it will begin accepting applications from nonprofit groups wishing to open medical-marijuana dispensaries across the state, local cities and towns across North Central Massachusetts are taking steps to protect their rights in the process.
Massachusetts health officials have started the application process for nonprofit medical-marijuana dispensaries this month.
Public Health Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett told The Associated Press that her agency has a strong framework in place and is ready to move forward after voters approved a law in November that allows for up to 35 dispensaries around the state to provide marijuana with certain certified medical conditions.
"We are committed to a fully transparent process that respects patient needs while ensuring safe communities," Bartlett said Friday.
The application process has two steps, she said. In the first phase, each application will be reviewed for financial viability and background checks will be conducted. During this process, according to The Associated Press, applicants must report if anyone in their organization has been subject to a felony drug conviction.
Those who make it through the first round will be moved to the second phase, in which a selection committee will review final applications.
Applications will be scored on various factors, including the appropriateness of the site, the geographical distribution of the dispensaries, local support for it and the ability of the applicant to meet the health needs of patients.
According to the state Department of Public Health, Attorney General Martha Coakley has issued a decision that municipalities are not permitted to enact a total ban on dispensaries.
However, they can adopt zoning bylaws to regulate such dispensaries as long as the bylaws do not conflict or interfere with the operation of the facility.
To do this, towns can enact a one-year moratorium to study the zoning issues related to the development of dispensaries.
Many local communities, including Fitchburg, Lancaster, and Westminster have adopted moratoriums. The Gardner City Council is slated to discuss a moratorium at its meeting Monday night.
Lunenburg Planning Director Marion Benson said the Planning Board has directed her to begin drafting a moratorium bylaw, which they would then adopt.
"When it's done and presented, they would have to decide if they were for or against it. The only reason a lot of the communities are doing this is to buy enough time to see where the regulations are going," she said.
Shirley resident John Hillier has received support from the town of Ayer to build a moratorium in town.
In November, 63 percent of Massachusetts voters approved a ballot question permitting medical-marijuana dispensaries. About the same percentage of Ayer voters approved the ballot question.
Town officials looked to put a moratorium on all applications for a minimum of 90 days but at a June 24 Town Meeting, voters turned down implementing a moratorium.
Lunenburg Town Manager Kerry Speidel said the prospect of a medical-marijuana facility in town is not something that has crossed her mind, and it is unlikely she will have to offer a recommendation on a moratorium or project.
"I'm not even sure about how I feel about medical marijuana. It's not something I've even spent a lot of time on. I would definitely keep an open mind," she said. "I could see maybe (selectmen) would want some input from the police chief and the different land-use boards. I don't think they would be looking to me for any input."
Implanting a moratorium bylaw would require Town Meeting action, she said.
With the application process comes hefty fees. Prospective applicants must pay $1,500 to apply during the initial phase. If they clear the first hurdle, they must supply an additional $30,000 in the second phase. Both are nonrefundable.
Dispensaries that are ultimately selected will be required to pay a $50,000 annual fee for a certificate of registration. There will also be a $500 annual registration fee for each dispensary agent.
The fees collected will be used by the Department of Public Health to cover all operational expenses, including hiring staff and training inspectors.
Those fees could be detrimental to certain entities looking to apply for a license, according to Boston-based Attorney James Smith, who has a client who will be seeking a license.
"I think many applicants will find that the relations are extremely stringent. If you don't have the experience, the background, the finances and resources, they won't be successful," he said. "I think the regulations are strict. I think the public will be very well served. ... DPH was adamant that you need to have the resources to run this. This is medicine and you have to provide good quality medicine."
If a person or entity comes up with the hefty fees, he said, they must also deal with public perception of facilities.
"What they don't understand is these facilities will look like a doctor's office," he said. "They're going to be very low key. I think in a couple of years, people will say what was the big deal? ... What people don't realize is there are pharmacies out there with even worse drugs and there are liquor stores all over the place."
While he said he understands communities wanting to implement a 12-month moratorium, it ultimately affects those people who need it the most.
"They're no different than a liquor or drug store. If you're not sure, zone it into a commercial or industrial zone. The moratorium is, in a way, unfortunate for the patients who need the facility. A one-year moratorium will basically disqualify a community. Licenses will be given out by the end of this year," he said.
The applications are available at www.comm-pass.com.
Follow Katina Caraganis on Twitter @kcaraganis.