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Boston Blazes Trail With New Recreational Marijuana Zoning Regulations

Hemp products on display at The Hempest in Cambridge.
Hemp products on display at The Hempest in Cambridge. By Derek G. Xiao
By Nina H. Pasquini, Crimson Staff Writer

The Boston Zoning Commission voted last month to approve zoning regulations for recreational marijuana businesses in Boston, marking a milestone in the ongoing legalization of recreational sales in Boston.

Among other things, the new regulations permit businesses to sell on the main streets of Boston and in any of the city’s business districts, but prohibit marijuana dispensaries from opening within a half mile of one another or within 500 feet of existing elementary or high schools.

“Municipalities play a significant role—in fact, the most critical role—in terms of allowing this industry to take root or not,” said Jay A. Youmans, a principal at Smith, Costello, and Crawford, a law group that represents marijuana firms. “This is a really big deal and should be noted, both by the industry and Boston residents, but also by other municipal leaders across the Commonwealth that are still figuring out what they want to do.”

While Massachusetts law mandates that the recreational marijuana industry must be state-licensed, municipalities have the power to create their own zoning laws. Chairman of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission Steven J. Hoffman said the state will not issue licenses to businesses that do not adhere to their municipality’s rules.

“We’re issuing the licenses, but we cannot and will not issue licenses unless all those municipal requirements are met,” Hoffman said.

Currently, over 190 municipalities in Massachusetts have put restrictions on marijuana operators; either by outright banning the sale of recreational marijuana or by enacting moratoria on the opening of marijuana dispensaries until the municipality has established zoning rules. Cambridge has not yet established zoning rules for recreational marijuana sales.

Youmans said that, by establishing zoning rules, Boston is breaking with a larger trend across the Commonwealth in which cities have chosen to restrict the sale of recreational marijuana.

“The biggest hurdle for this new industry has really been the municipalities,” he said. “For a state of 6.8 million people, to have its largest municipality take a leadership role in aggressively passing zoning in time for the June 1 launch of this industry really shows some leadership on the part of Mayor Walsh.”

Though Boston’s zoning rules will ensure that dispensaries can open starting on June 1, some have criticized the regulations for being too restrictive.

In an emailed statement, Joseph T. Gilmore, outreach director of the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, specifically criticized the half-mile and school buffer rules.

“The 500 feet buffer from schools and half mile distance from other marijuana establishments limits the amount of available spaces within the city, restricting entrepreneurs who aren’t financially backed from finding an affordable location,” he wrote. “We believe marijuana zoning in Boston should be no more restrictive than locations that allow the sale of alcohol, as it has been proven to be a much safer alternative for adults.”

Gina Physic, an assistant director of media relations and public affairs at the Boston Planning & Development Agency, wrote in an email that these regulations are an extension of Boston’s already-existing medical marijuana zoning rules.

“The zoning language approved follows the state's guidance on buffer zones around schools and is an extension of the City of Boston's existing zoning for medical marijuana,” she wrote. “It will promote wider distribution of these new establishments so they are not clustered in certain neighborhoods.”

Youmans also said he believes the zoning regulations are imperfect. But he said that, overall, he believes the regulations comprise a step in the right direction for the recreational marijuana industry in Massachusetts.

“I think over time—let's give it a couple years—as these things start getting sited and permitted, I think this is something that probably the city will have to re-explore,” Youmans said of the regulations. “But I think that that’s a real sidenote in comparison to the headline here, which is Boston did something really positive as it relates to the cannabis industry.”

—Staff writer Nina H. Pasquini can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @nhpasquini.

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