Bedford’s Zoning Map – Image (c) Bedford Planning Department, 2016 all rights reserved – Click to view larger image

By Eliza Rosenberry

Bedford residents will soon be asked to vote on where they think medical marijuana facilities should be allowed by special permit to operate in Bedford.

Just a few months after voters approved a yearlong moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries, the Planning Board and town planning staff have prepared a draft bylaw to regulate where such facilities could locate.

Before medical marijuana and other zoning amendments are put to a vote at Annual Town Meeting in March, they will first be presented at a public Planning Board hearing scheduled for February 7.

The 2012 state ballot question legalizing medical marijuana was approved in Bedford with 63% voting in favor and 37% opposed.

Last summer, a medical marijuana dispensary showed interest in opening on Great Road, though ultimately the request did not move forward as the proposed location was too close to locations where children gather. State law requires a 500-foot buffer between medical marijuana facilities and places where minors congregate regularly, such as churches, schools, and daycare facilities. But the inquiry prompted Selectmen and the Planning Board to recommend a moratorium at Special Town Meeting in November, which essentially put a hold on dispensaries for one year, allowing the town time to create appropriate zoning regulations.

The proposed zoning bylaw would limit facilities used for the cultivation, preparation, and sale of medical marijuana to the three industrial zones in Bedford: Industrial A, B, and C. Areas that could see medical marijuana facilities under such zoning include Wiggins Avenue and much of the area northeast of Route 3 along Middlesex Turnpike and Crosby Drive.

Planning Director Tony Fields noted that some childcare businesses are located in those districts, further restricting the properties available to applicants. (Although, Fields added, if a child-centric facility opened within the 500-foot buffer after a medical marijuana dispensary, there would be no violation of the law.) Some towns have chosen to increase the buffer distance beyond the state requirement, but Planning Board members were not interested in doing so.

It is also illegal under state law for medical marijuana facilities to display any kind of marijuana signage or promotional materials; many dispensaries have innocuous waiting rooms in front with secure pharmacies and storage in back.

Fields originally suggested restricting medical marijuana facilities to the Crosby Drive area above Route 3, but Board members found consensus in expanding the options available to potential applicants.

“I have a philosophical problem with sticking [medical marijuana facilities] out by the highway where it’s as much out of sight, out of mind as it can possibly be,” said Board member Amy Lloyd. “I think that there should be some better accessibility.”

Medical marijuana patients are required to receive certification from a physician and register annually with the state. According to the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Group, a coalition of medical marijuana advocates, the drug can be used to treat a range of symptoms and can be an effective alternative to prescription painkillers. Medical marijuana is available in a variety of forms, and some types don’t even come with the traditional high associated with the drug.

There are currently nine medical marijuana dispensaries open in Massachusetts, according to the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services, with the closest facilities to Bedford in Lowell and Newton.

Recreational marijuana, on the other hand, which was legalized statewide by a 2016 ballot question, will be treated differently under state law. Retail stores are expected to open in mid-2018 and will require licenses, much like liquor stores. Towns will have the option of blocking retail recreational marijuana stores altogether, and Fields indicated town officials here are discussing that option, as Bedford itself voted in opposition to that ballot question.

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