Difficult choices for voters – time for rulemaking for marijuana dispensaries


Edgartown voters agreed to give their town a year to consider how to permit medical marijuana dispensaries. They were smart. West Tisbury and Oak Bluffs voters ought to have done the same. Instead, town officials and planners in both communities, each a target of well-organized and qualified medicinal marijuana entrepreneurs who seem likely to have their enterprises approved by the state, are presenting voters with choices as to where these new businesses may be located, and how they will be permitted.

As we’ve written before, this page is not convinced that medicinal marijuana is a safe and effective palliative, though some anecdotal evidence suggests it may be. At the same time, there is substantial reason to think that the introduction of medicinal marijuana dispensaries will encourage the expanded use of marijuana for recreational purposes among the general population, and especially the young. The evidence on these questions is not conclusive, but in general and based on a limited history in a few states, it supports the view that, carefully overseen, such dispensaries may not be as insidious as medicinal marijuana opponents warn.

Still, dispensaries, now enshrined in Massachusetts law, will absolutely have significant and varied effects, none of which may be forecast with certainty today. They will certainly have a disproportionately large influence on the small Island towns to which they are destined.

Vineyard officials have been uneasy, at least preliminarily, at the notion of dispensaries within their borders, despite the unmixed enthusiasm of Island voters. Some of the anxiety grows out of uncertainty about what the consequences might be to each town’s particular culture and how to manage the town’s responsibility for law enforcement and regulatory oversight. It’s understandable that they should be cautious and doubtful, in light of the confusing anecdotal reports of activities surrounding such dispensaries in states that allow them, and of the conflict with federal law that outlaws the businesses and the cultivation of product to be sold in dispensaries, even in states that allow them.

Thoughtful leaders will recognize that carefully circumscribed zoning authority, imposed now by voters, will set a tone for the operation of these businesses. It will allow the communities to become comfortable in time with the change. Voters must expect that great care will be taken to protect the interests of the majority of voters and residents who did not mark a ballot in favor of medicinal marijuana dispensaries. Officials will learn how to oversee these businesses, and over time, limited districts for the establishment of dispensaries and rigorous oversight may be relaxed to match whatever are the experienced effects of such activities.