Weeding Through the Rules for Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

City Councilors hashed out what happens next as shops get ready to open in Boston.

City Council Photo by Steve Annear

City Council Photo by Steve Annear

The eligible candidates initially approved for state-regulated medical marijuana dispensary licenses will have to face additional hurdles and rules set by Boston officials before they can start selling their product to qualifying patients.

During a somewhat-dense public hearing at City Hall on Tuesday, council members tried to clear the smoke in regards to what the next steps are for the two dispensaries that are slated to start supplying medical marijuana to customers once official licenses are granted by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, a move that could come as soon as this spring.

In January, 16 companies were approved for provisional licenses to open 20 dispensaries in Massachusetts. They were selected from a pool of more than 100 applicants during a two-phase process. But before the provisional and official licenses are awarded by the DPH, the agency has to further vet the remaining applicants.

During the public hearing Tuesday, which drew residents and businesses from around Boston, City Council members said they had concerns about safety in the neighborhoods surrounding the proposed dispensary locations—one is hoping to go in on Boylston Street, while another is eyeing property on Southampton Street—as well as how new policies will help enforce and regulate the sale of medical marijuana.

Officials were wary of putting a pot shop on Southampton Street, which would be located near a school, a jail, and a methadone clinic.  “The state has put a lot of safeguards in place, but since the problems will be local problems, I don’t think anyone feels as though we are stepping on anyone’s toes,” putting additional regulations in place, said Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission.

The grievances came the same day that Boston Police Commissioner William Evans told the Herald  these shops could invite additional crime to Boston. “Public safety-wise, it’s not a good idea. And also, I just worry, we’re having all these drug issues surrounding heroin and OxyContin, why, at this stage, would we want to introduce another drug into the community?,” he said, adding there’s lots of room for abuse when it comes to prescriptions being written.

Although the two businesses that are on track to get licenses to open in Boston have already showed interest in specific locations for their dispensaries to operate, officials said ultimately it’s the authority of the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Boston Redevelopment Authority to decide what the local zoning regulations will be for the facilities.

Sifting through the zoning process would require hearings before the boards, which likely wouldn’t take place until the summer, further setting back plans dispensary owners may have had to open anytime soon. City officials said shop owners could use that time—roughly four to five months—to meet with neighbors and residents and introduce themselves to the community, easing any worries people might have about a marijuana dispensary moving into the area. There is currently no place in the city where there is pre-approved permitted use to open a shop, but dispensaries are prohibited in residential areas.

Besides zoning issues, Ferrer told the City Council on Tuesday that once the two dispensaries meet state regulations, they would have to adhere to other rules set by Boston departments. “Each one will need to apply for an operating permit from the BPHC, and they will need to submit detailed operation, security measures, and patient access plans to the [commission], who will review them with a panel of city agencies including the Boston Police Department, the Inspectional Services Department, and the BRA before issuing a permit,” she said.

Even then, once the city issues their own permit for operations, dispensaries will be subject to an initial on-site inspection, as well as three unscheduled, impromptu inspections each year to make sure they are in compliance with state and local laws. “There will also need to be a community hearing every year before a permit renewal to see if they are being the best neighbors they can be,” said Ferrer.

Additional requirements that the dispensary owners will have to meet will be giving patients access to medical marijuana via delivery service, something police and City Council members voiced concerns about. Under state guidelines, a home delivery service will have to be offered to people with a hardship that may not be able to leave their home. Police said in order to make sure this works, they would need to put regulations in place first.

Each delivery would be subject to a strict set of controls and would have to be weighed, measured, and videotaped before being put on a truck and dispensed to each patient.

Jamie Lewis, chief operating officer of Good Chemistry, the dispensary hoping to open on Boylston Street, told officials that all of those concerns would be addressed—and more. “Massachusetts has some of the most rigorous delivery regulations in the country. We will have in-vehicle cameras and GPS tracking, and have marijuana in vault-like containers to be delivered in non-discreet vans,” she said.

Lewis also addressed concerns about the smell a dispensary’s products might bring to the neighborhood—she said it would be sealed and packaged prior to arriving at the facility from their growing plant in Worcester—and outlined security details as they pertained to gaining access to the store. She said they would not have a lot of product on site at the dispensary, either.

“We want to work closely with the city [on these issues],” she said. “We will work hard to show we can serve our patients and be appropriately located in the city.”