Boston Mayor Marty Walsh was among the most vocal opponents of the ballot question to legalize marijuana and, once it passed, complained that Massachusetts cities would become the default centers of the retail industry as smaller communities opted out of allowing the sale of pot inside their borders.
Many smaller communities are moving to block the sale of pot, but Walsh, a recovering alcoholic whose personal opposition to the use of pot stems from his addiction battles, has changed his tune. His aides say he is no longer concerned about Boston becoming a destination for those to buy their high. They say he is embracing the nascent industry as an economic engine and comparing it to alcohol in both its social and commercial impact. The city is likely to play host to at least 41 retail pot shops.
“This is a new industry that is going to provide jobs for residents,” said Jerome Smith, Walsh’s chief of civic engagement, who has been put in charge of overseeing the implementation of the recreational marijuana law in Boston. “These dispensaries are also going to be economic generators, same as alcohol licenses. There’s social ills with both products, but when we as the city look at economic drivers, the mayor told us to treat it how we treat our alcohol establishments.”
As the legal marijuana business in Massachusetts is about to kick into high gear with the formation of the regulatory commission charged with its oversight, cities and towns must now deal with the intricacies of the law, including how to fit the mandated minimum number of pot shops into their borders.
By law, communities that haven’t imposed a ban on retail marijuana stores or voted to limit their number must accommodate a minimum number of pot shops. The minimum number is 20 percent of the municipality’s off-premises liquor licenses (think package stores), which adds up to roughly 450 across the state. In Boston alone, with more than 200 off-premises liquor licenses, the city must accommodate no less than 41 pot shops.
Cities and towns can vote to ban retail pot shops or limit their number. For cities and towns that voted in favor of Question 4, a ban or reduction can only be done through a community-wide referendum. In municipalities that voted against the statewide ballot question, a ban or reduction can be approved by the legislative body, either city council or town meeting.
“Citizens probably would have voted against the ballot question had they understood this,” said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “They voted on the simple question, ‘will recreational marijuana become legal in Massachusetts?’ The question was not ‘would you vote to require communities to establish up to five or 10 or 20 commercial pot shops in your community?’”
Massachusetts cities, most of which voted in favor of the referendum, are holding fall elections, which means there isn’t enough time to put a ballot question before voters this year. They would either have to wait for the next municipal election or hold a special election. Towns, by contrast, have elections in the spring before the July 1, 2018 implementation of the law, as well as Town Meetings this fall and in the spring.
Some city mayors, though, see zoning as a legal way to ensure their cities aren’t overrun by pot shops. New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, whose proposed moratorium on retail marijuana was rejected by the City Council, says using the zoning bylaws has always been an appropriate way to regulate industries that may not be in a community’s best interests.
“Our approach will be to enact geographic zoning restrictions on the establishment of retail shops,” said Mitchell, a former federal prosecutor who opposed the ballot question. “The approach is a traditional one that’s used for similar types of ‘vice’ establishments like strip clubs, which is to put them far away from residential areas.”
Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch, who voted no on the ballot question and remains opposed to legal marijuana, said the city has a zoning proposal that would restrict retail outlets to three industrial areas of the city, including the former Quincy Shipyard. With restrictions on how close a store can be to schools, churches, or each other, Koch is confident the city won’t have to approve the nine stores that would be required by statute.
“I don’t view this as an economic engine for Quincy,” said Koch, who noted the referendum barely passed by a 51-49 margin last fall. “The less establishments in Quincy, the better. I respect the wish of the voter, therefore there will be some implementation, but I haven’t ruled out a [citywide] referendum.”
Quincy is undergoing a major redevelopment downtown, a large part of the renaissance pinned to an increase in restaurants and bars and, in turn, an increase in alcohol serving licenses. Koch says he doesn’t see a comparison morally, socially, or economically between the two.
“I think there’s a big difference,” said Koch. “Restaurants want the option [of liquor licenses] to attract diners. You need to have the ability to serve liquor to have a successful restaurant. I don’t see the natural connection with folks smoking marijuana in downtown as the same.”
Jim Borghesani, who was the communications director for the marijuana ballot question campaign, said cities and towns that look to restrict retail pot establishments by any means other than the ballot risk having their communities dragged into court.
“Unlike alcohol, application and permitting [for marijuana] is done at the state level,” said Borghesani. “What (communities) do is determine the location. It’s going to be difficult for the town to say no you can’t come. They can’t just keep saying no hoping retailers will go away. They can’t just not provide an area where these facilities are to be located. They have to accommodate a certain number of establishments.”
Smith said that won’t be a problem in Boston, as city officials look to spread the opportunities in all neighborhoods.
“At the end of the day, Boston is going to set up a good system,” he said. “You won’t see anything in Boston with any trickery in zoning or any of that. We’re not going to try to throw up any roadblocks.”