City Council holds hearing on potential buffer zone between marijuana dispensa-ries and recovery facilities

By Lauren Bennett

Special to the Gazette

The City Council Committee on Planning, Development, and Transportation held a hearing on Dec. 11 regarding City regulation of the proximity of certain businesses to recovery facilities.

Though there was no official proposal, the hearing centered around having a buffer zone between marijuana retailers and recovery facilities. Councilor Lydia Edwards, one of the sponsors of the hearing, said this was the “kickoff of conversation” on this topic, and through her role as a city councilor she has the most influence through zoning regulation. She added that she’d like to see people who are dealing with addiction and mental health services be part of the conversation to “influence how the regulation will be rolled out.”

Edwards said that both proponents and opponents have used “bad science” to make claims for their thoughts about the marijuana industry. But the question that remains is not one of whether or not there should be retail stores in Boston.

“We are going to have recreational pot stores all throughout Boston,” she said. “The question is how and what is best for our neighborhoods.”

Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, also a sponsor of the hearing, said that she has “specific concerns about that proximity and the impact of different types of facilities have on someone who is working towards recovery.”

Will Luzier, a 43-year Allston-Brighton resident, said that he has found no studies that a substance abuse treatment facility is any less effective if it is located near a cannabis dispensary. He also raised the question of what constitutes a treatment facility—with places like sober homes and halfway houses, the definition of a treatment facility can be gray. Luzier believes that “this commerce can and should be incorporated into our society.”

A representative speaking on behalf of Robert Mellion, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Store Association, said that they have concerns about what this potential buffer would mean to current license holders and their businesses.

Edwards said that while a buffer zone could apply to liquor stores and bars—it would only apply to new businesses should it be put into place.

The first panel of experts included Marty Martinez, chief of Health and Human Services.

“We see overdoses, we see folks continuing to be impacted by the [addiction] disease,” he said. He added that there are nearly 90 licensed treatment facilities in the City of Boston that help people recover from a variety of substances, but this number is not enough.

“We need folks to have the ability to access services in neighborhoods that will pull them away from triggers,” Martinez said.

He added that this buffer could be detrimental in several ways: he wondered what would happen if someone wanted to put a treatment facility where there might be a recreational marijuana store or a liquor store. Neighborhoods often don’t want recovery facilities in their neighborhoods either, so he said that the “stakeholder voice is critical to this process.” He said that he wants hospitals and facilities to have their voices heard.

Jerome Smith, chief of Civic Engagement, said that community meetings regarding marijuana dispensaries are drawing in upwards of 100 people, because communities are seeking as much information as they can get. He said that they are worried about getting the number of licenses they need out in the city. He said that they have “played with GPS mapping” and determined that they can fit about 51 licenses in the City of Boston.

“We will have to have a conversation about the length of the buffer zone,” Smith said, but they also need to see how the industry takes hold in the city and move from there. He said they’re seeing more interest in cannabis shops downtown because of the greater availability of space and less school zones.

With the potential new buffer, he added, “we would run the risk of the proponents of the industry going to the [Cannabis Control Commission] saying Boston created an undue burden. “Both industries are having a tough time in Boston and we need both of them,” he said.

Timothy Naimi, an internist at Boston Medical Center, said that he is concerned about having the dispensaries on Albany and Tremont Streets that will “perpetuate these cycles of addiction” in the patients with substance abuse disorder that they treat, including triggering relapses and promoting new addictions.

“The siting of these facilities have the real potential to exacerbate those problems,” Naimi said.

Naimi “respectfully requested” that there are no marijuana facilities licensed within a half mile of BMC’s campus, which he said “mirrors the current minimum distance required between each marijuana facility.” He added that distance makes it “less convenient” for people in recovery to be exposed to the signage promoting marijuana use.

Two people in recovery testified, which the City Council generally felt was the most impactful testimony at the hearing.

Both Jack Kelly and Katie O’Leary voted for the legalization of marijuana. Kelly said he’s seen a lot of people harmed by prohibition. Kelly also believes that people who are coming to Boston seeking licenses for marijuana establishments should give a real voice to people who were harmed by addiction and prohibition, so they have a “real equity stake” in the process.

Katie O’Leary once used North Suffolk Mental Health Association’s recovery program and now works as a recovery coach manager at the facility. She said she is not opposed to marijuana dispensaries, but feels that they should be zoned appropriately.

“As someone who has utilized North Suffolk’s program, having a dispensary next to it would be detrimental to my recovery at the time,” she said. “I am extremely concerned for the individuals who use North Suffolk who do not have the ability to realize that that is an unhealthy thought.”

She said that marijuana access could trigger relapse for those in recovery from mind-altering substances.

Kim Hanton, director of Addiction Services at North Suffolk Mental Health Association, said she hopes that the City Council will take a look at the density of cannabis stores in the city, implement requirements for cannabis education and community engagement, limit hours of operation, and minimize signage to youth and vulnerable populations.

She said it will be easier to prevent future harm by removing regulations in the future than by adding them later.

“We are particularly concerned about the vulnerable population we serve at North Suffolk—youth and young adults that are particularly vulnerable to the availability of substances, such as cannabis,” Hanton said.

Naimi added that physical availability is the “key driver” of substance abuse. He cited research that shows that the number of locations of actual dispensaries is a key predictor for adult marijuana use disorders.

O’Leary said that people in recovery congregate outside North Suffolk before and after treatment and become close to each other.

“That’s how I felt when I was there,” she said. “Triggers vary—if I smoke a joint, I’m going to pick up a needle. If I have a drink, I’ll pick up a needle,” said O’Leary.

People are triggered by different things, be it smells, tastes, or touches—anything can be a trigger for someone in recovery.

Councilor Edwards closed the hearing by saying “it’s necessary that we have this conversation now rather than after the fact.”

“When we think about policy and moving forward, we need to think about the larger city impact,” she said.

She added that a balance needed to be struck between everyone involved on both sides of this argument, and she invites the public to contact her office with any questions or concerns they might have.

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