Mayor Ted Bettencourt is now one step closer to getting medical marijuana facilities banned in Peabody.
City councilors agreed Tuesday night to move forward on a zoning amendment that would prohibit both dispensaries and growing facilities from operating anywhere in the city.
The vote was not unanimous, however; only Ward 4 City Councilor Robert Driscoll opposed pursuing a ban because he feels it would be "premature" without having any details from the state on the governance and operation of these new facilities.
"I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the city of Peabody to have medical marijuana at this time," Bettencourt said, noting the opposition from local health and police officials and listing off a number of concerns they all share.
He said those concerns, which largely deal with the rules and regulations that will govern marijuana facilties, have so far been unanswered by state health officials. He recited a number of questions, such as who will write the rules, how will prescriptions be obtained, what will doctor/patient relationships look like and if there will be criminal background checks on directors and employees.
"Those are questions that are unanswered, and as far as I know, not even discussed [at this time]," Bettencourt said.
He acknowledged in a later interview with reporters that those issues will likely be hashed out by state lawmakers and the Department of Public Health, but with Peabody and many other communities in "uncharted waters," he doesn't want to leave any opportunity for marijuana facilities to open up in the city before then.
Bettencourt said he feels it's an issue of public safety.
"I’m hoping that these restrictions and rules are very tight. At this point in time, I think this is a decision that is in the best interest of the city of Peabody," he said, adding he would consider revisiting the issue in the future when such state guidelines are in place.
Councilors also discussed what might happen if a legal challenge were posed to the city's ban, and the general consensus was that if a judge did side with the plaintiff, the city would then be forced to identify a zone in which to locate a facility and thus still retain some measure of control.
Longtime ward councilor David Gamache said that has been past practice on zoning issues appealed in court.
"This is an issue we should be proactive on rather than reactive," Bettencourt said.
Gamache, who initially referred the issue into committee to look at creating local zoning restrictions for marijuana facilities, said he wanted to act quickly on the issue, in part, to discourage interested parties from locating in Peabody.
He said the state won't have any details settled by Jan. 1, but that won't stop companies or individuals from going town-to-town to open up a facility before then and start selling pot. In fact, a few councilors said Tuesday night they've already been approached.
"What’s going to happen is [they] will come knocking, but if Peabody has a restriction, then they will go elsewhere," he said.
Peabody is not alone in seeking to ban medical marijuana operations -- Wakefield and Reading have both accomplished that via Town Meeting and city officials in Melrose are considering similar action. Zoning amendments have also been proposed in Salem, Woburn and Malden.
Bettencourt did acknowledge that a majority of Peabody voters disagreed with him on the issue at the polls and approved the ballot question, as they did elsewhere in Massachusetts.
"But the citizens of Peabody voted for me to be the mayor and I have to make difficult choices," Bettencourt replied. He said he's going to "stand firm" on his decision.
The matter will now go to the Planning Board for a recommendation on a zoning amendment and then come back to the full City Council for a vote. In the interest of time, the Planning Board and City Council may hold a joint public hearing. If approved there, the restriction would become official once signed by the mayor.