By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — Answering an appeal from Mayor Ted Bettencourt, Peabody’s City Council has overwhelmingly approved a measure that begins the process of forbidding any marijuana dispensaries or growing facilities within the city.
The Tuesday night meeting reflected a great deal of frustration and doubt by councilors regarding the Election Day passage of a statewide initiative petition allowing the sale of the drug when prescribed by a physician.
The action by the Peabody council becomes among the first on the North Shore to address potential placement of medical marijuana “dispensaries” as outlined in the law – which calls for 35 such dispensaries across the state, with at least one and no more than five in each county.
Cape Ann officials have started talking informally about options for Gloucester and Cape Ann’s towns, as well. Erin Battistelli, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said she is in favor of a medicinal marijuana dispensary within the Cape Ann community, adding that the more potential and accessible dispensaries, the better – especially for elderly or terminally ill residents.
She added that said that Cape Ann’s communities should coordinate and work together, as a dispensary placed in Gloucester or any other community could affect surrounding towns, as well.
No one spoke in support of locating marijuana facilities in Peabody, but some worried that banning them outright — rather than restricting them to the city’s adult zone — might open the door to lawsuits. Legal action, they fear, could eventually allow the pot shops in places like the downtown by judicial fiat.
Councilor Barry Sinewitz, meanwhile, worried about the impact of placing them on Route 1 — the adult zone — which already contains strip clubs, X-rated bookstores, a methadone clinic and a pool hall.
“It’s almost becoming a Disneyland for all sorts of degenerate behavior,” he said.
Bettencourt presented his plan for banning the facilities before the council’s Legal Affairs Subcommittee at a meeting that attracted nearly all the councilors, as well as New England Cable News. He complained that passage of the referendum left too many unanswered questions.
“Who is going to write the rules?” he asked. “Who is going to enforce the rules?” Will there be background checks? What role do doctors play? “These unanswered questions and concerns to me are a public safety issue.”
He told them that City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski is confident that the city has the legal right to issue a blanket restriction preventing the location of marijuana facilities in the city.
Councilor Dave Gamache worried aloud about a “mad rush” to locate the dispensaries come Jan. 1. Several councilors mentioned being approached prior to the meeting by people eager to set up pot shops in Peabody. One, Sinewitz said, had assured him of 7,900 customers already awaiting the opening.
Gamache, however, also referenced a meeting with police Chief Robert Champagne, whom he said advised that people hoping to operate marijuana dispensaries are likely to quickly bypass cities that resist. If the path to Peabody is quickly blocked, Gamache suggested, they will go to cities like Salem or elsewhere instead.
“This is an issue where we need to be proactive,” the mayor agreed.
Councilor Anne Manning-Martin saw the board’s role as adopting the referendum to the requirements of the community.
“That’s been left to us,” she said.
The only no vote among the 11 councilors was Bob Driscoll, who worried that the city might be acting too quickly and that the state may yet produce some clarification in the meantime.
“I’d like to have more information,” he said.
Alan Burke can be reached via email at email@example.com