Monday, May 13, 2013

"Reefer Madness" Hitting Local Officials Hard

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, May 13, 2013.

By Bill Gouveia

When Massachusetts citizens voted a short time ago to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes, a flurry of activity was set of in cities and towns across the Commonwealth.

City councils, selectmen and planning boards immediately set about protecting the public from the threat allegedly posed by medical marijuana.  This municipal strain of “reefer madness” wasted no time in grabbing the attention of town and public safety officials who felt the need to make sure the pot dispensaries did not suddenly smoke-out suburbia.

Some couldn’t even wait for the state to come out with rules to regulate these dens of medical iniquity.  Before they even knew exactly what they were dealing with, they were desperately trying to ensure such a facility could not locate within their borders.  They would have banned them outright, except the law apparently prevents such a thing.

Much of the impetus for such regulatory efforts stems from police chiefs who see having the illegal drug legally handed out in their towns – albeit only to people with permission – as a serious problem.  It is hard to blame them, since declaring a product to be illegal and then setting up a place where it is dispensed makes their jobs harder.

But it is truly amazing what the mere thought of having a business in town dealing in marijuana seems to do to folks.  While the opening of a liquor store barely causes a ripple in comparison (except perhaps with neighbors and other liquor license holders), just the possibility of marijuana openly being distributed to anyone is sending town planners into overdrive.

If some of the zoning regulations being proposed were to pass, it might be easier to locate an adult entertainment business in those towns than a medical marijuana treatment center.  Some officials have expressed concern such businesses could cause increased crime and possibly put impaired drivers on local roads.

But the new regulations issued by Massachusetts officials state the facilities are only for people with a “debilitating medical condition” including but not limited to HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, ALS, Crohn’s disease, cancer, glaucoma, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.  It is hard to believe these folks would be much of a threat to any neighborhood or community.

We need to remember this law passed on the ballot with about 63 percent of the vote.  That is generally considered a landslide in political circles.  Is it possible this overwhelming majority meant they wanted these treatment centers located in the state, as long as it wasn’t in their particular city or town?  That would not be unprecedented.

This is a classic case of rushing to judgment before knowing the facts.  You have to give some credit to the communities who at least waited until after the regulations came out before attempting to make locating one there impossible through zoning manipulation.  And at the same time, it should be noted some zoning regulations are necessary and proper to make sure problems do not arise.  This would be true of almost any business.

But voters and citizens need to understand this is not a complete legalization of marijuana.  You cannot walk into these centers and order an ounce to go for recreational purposes.  These are businesses to supply a drug to people with serious conditions who need them just to be able to life their everyday lives.

Does the possibility of people abusing the rules for their own purposes exist?  Of course, but it would appear there are enough regulations to control those possibilities.  It is really a shame many municipalities seem to be concentrating on the perceived negatives of such facilities rather than the benefits they can offer many people who desperately need them.

Forget the whole “marijuana is a gateway drug” argument, because it does not apply here.  This is not condoning recreational use of pot, nor extending tacit approval for people to use it illegally – even though a huge number of people do just that.  Those who would make it about those issues are being terribly insensitive to the patients and are ignoring the clear will of the majority.

Fearing what we do not understand is not a good excuse for the kind of overreaction we have seen in this situation.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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