SOMERSET — The selectmen voted last Wednesday to refer a proposed amendment to the medical marijuana bylaw to the Planning Board for its recommendation, so that it can be voted on at the Dec. 4 Special Town Meeting.
If the article is passed, it would expand on the number of locations in town where medical marijuana dispensaries could be located. They are currently allowed in industrial or light industrial zones. The proposal would allow them to also be located in business and limited business zones.
A similar article was voted on at a town meeting in the spring and did not get the necessary two-thirds of the vote that was needed to pass.
Selectman David Berube said he thinks Somerset was missing the boat by not approving the article at that town meeting. He said the town needs to bring in as much tax revenue as it can and approving the change to the bylaw potentially could bring in more revenue for the town. Berube said he thinks people at the Special Town Meeting in the spring were confusing dispensaries where medical marijuana is sold with places where recreational marijuana is sold.
Berube said medical marijuana has been proven to help people and said it is sold in secured areas at dispensaries.
Town Counsel Clement Brown said state legislation has changed to limit the host fee that the town could collect from a medical marijuana dispensary to no more than three percent of its gross revenue. Before the legislation was changed, that amount was not limited.
Selectman Holly McNamara said it is difficult to get a license to start a medical marijuana facility. She said people should not be scared that youths can get marijuana from a dispensary. McNamara said medical marijuana can help people who have cancer.
McNamara said New Bedford has already passed an ordinance that expands the zones where it can locate medical marijuana facilities. She said expanding the zones in Somerset where the dispensaries can be located is not a desperate effort to get more tax revenue, but is to stay current and progress and be competitive with other communities.
McNamara said the town may be able to get some doctors to do a presentation on medical marijuana dispensaries to educate the public about them.
Selectmen Chairman Steve Moniz said the town should seriously look at expanding the zoning for medical marijuana dispensaries. He said he felt the discussion at the town meeting in the spring drifted from medical marijuana to recreational marijuana. Moniz said he thinks people in the audience at that Special Town Meeting feared recreational marijuana. He said he strongly supports expanding the zoning for where medical marijuana dispensaries can go in Somerset.
"This doesn't mean that marijuana dispensaries are going to pop up and take over the town," McNamara said of expanding the zoning.
Attorney Brown said there are requirements about how close marijuana dispensaries can be to schools or residences. If the new zones are approved for medical marijuana dispensaries, they will still be required to get a special permit from the town. Moniz said the selectmen have the best interests of residents in mind with the proposal to expand the zoning for medical marijuana facilities.
"All the safeguards will stay in place," Moniz said.
Attorney Brown said a medical marijuana dispensary would also need a state license which he said is a long and onerous process.
Resident Anthony Kucikas asked if there would be a limit on the amount of marijuana dispensaries that could go in Somerset. Atty. Brown said the state has a limit on marijuana dispensaries, but not the town, but he said they could only go in locations in Somerset that are zoned for them. He said with present zoning, they could be located at the properties where the Montaup Electric and Brayton Point power plants operated, in an area south of the sewer plant on Walker Street and on property under power lines west of the Montaup Electric site on Riverside Avenue.
"They are allowed almost nowhere now," McNamara said.
Town Administrator Brown said the medical marijuana dispensaries can operate in buildings that are 2,000 square feet or less, so the current sites where they could be operated in town are not amenable for such a business that would be out of the way for people to get to.
Kucikas asked if seven medical marijuana dispensaries could pop up in Somerset. Town Administrator Brown said he does not expect that many dispensaries to come into town.
Berube said the way the zoning is now, there are not sites in Somerset that are advantageous for medical marijuana dispensaries. He said either the buildings on the site are too large or they are not in the best locations. Berube said the medical marijuana facilities will go to communities that are advantageous to them. He said Somerset is being considered for medical marijuana dispensaries, but they also could decide to go to Swansea or Fall River.
Berube said that besides the host fee the medical marijuana dispensary would pay, it would also pay real estate taxes and its employees would spend money at other businesses in town.
Resident Denise Jordan said she did not feel there was enough information at the town meeting in the spring for voters to make a decision on expanding the zones for medical marijuana dispensaries.
At that Special Town Meeting, Police Chief George McNeil said he opposed expanding the zoning for medical marijuana dispensaries. At that meeting, he talked about emergency room visits at hospitals in Colorado increasing because of recreational marijuana.
Resident Kim Michaud said there should be a description of what is done at a medical marijuana dispensary. Moniz said it will be explained at the Special Town Meeting. McNamara said she thinks the dispensaries are like pharmacies, only with more restrictions. Atty. Brown said there are restrictions on who the medical marijuana can be sold to at the dispensaries and there are also requirements on security, lighting and other aspects of the business.