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Carroll commissioners support expanding medical cannabis, but worry about future recreational use

A proposed change in the first draft of Carroll County’s comprehensive rezoning allows medical cannabis dispensaries in commercial areas.

Yet the possibility that recreational use of cannabis could be legalized in the future brought out concerns from county leaders.

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The Carroll County Board of Commissioners and Planning Department made the adjustment to the rezoning text after discussing the paradigm shift in medical cannabis usage across Maryland and the country.

It was agreed unanimously that medical cannabis should be allowed in commercial districts — but concerns from board President Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, about Carroll’s youth led to a reinforced 400-foot distance requirement from schools, religious institutions, and residential and agricultural properties.

“My argument is: I'm all about medicinal cannabis,” Wantz said on Feb. 21. “I’ve seen the benefits. I’ve heard the testimony.

“My issue is, when — not ‘if’ but ‘when’ — it becomes available for recreational use, then these facilities are just going to be grandfathered in to allow that to happen,” he said.

To keep future recreational cannabis from students, he had said he supported a 1,000-foot distance requirement from schools that the 60th Board of Commissioners agreed upon two years ago.

But the 1,000-foot requirement from existing and planned schools could not coexist with an existing measure, according to comprehensive planner Mary Lane.

The existing requirement keeps cannabis dispensaries, as well as growers and processors, at least 400 feet from not only any school — but any lot in a residence district; any lot less than three acres in an agricultural district where a residential lot has been recorded, currently exists or is permitted for future construction; and any religious establishment, or institution for human care.

The compromise was to remove the 1,000-foot requirement, but to retain the 400-foot requirement that will keep the dispensaries from residential properties, some agricultural properties and other institutions as well.

Pharmacies

Commissioners Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, and Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, said they didn’t see why there should be a distance requirement at all.

“If you have a pharmacy, it could be right next to a school,” Frazier said. “If you’re looking at this as medical cannabis, and you are looking at this as prescribed, and all of that is in place, I don’t see the need for another restriction on it.

“We allow school buildings next to places that distribute Oxycontin, which is more addictive than anything out there,” he said, “and if that's okay, then why isn’t this?”

Wantz said he wasn’t anticipating recreational cannabis to become legal in Carroll any time soon, but he wanted to bring up potential conflicts before they arise.

“The next step,” he said, “we know what’s coming. Then comes recreational. If [the dispensaries are] there, how are you going to take them away? I'd like to address it now. It’s not going to be next week, but my point is the dispensaries will be there.”

Rothstein disagreed.

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“The argument, that this is a step away from the recreational use of cannabis, I don't buy,” he said. “This is medicine. It’s hard for me to be saying that from where we grew up, in our culture, but the fact is that it’s now recognized as medicine and it should be treated as medicine.

“Like Commissioner Frazier said … there are so many other things, unfortunately, our kids can get their hands into that are much closer in proximity, and much, much more dangerous,” Rothstein said. “And that concerns me that we are treating this other than what it’s designed to be, and that's medicine.”

Liquor stores

District 2 Commissioner Richard Weaver asked the Planning Department if there were distance requirements for liquor stores.

They said no.

“But it’s sold and distributed in accordance with the law,” Rothstein said. “If you are 21, you can buy it and walk out, and it’s regulated.

“If they sell it recreationally to a kid underage, you best believe I want them arrested and fined in accordance with the law,” he said. “But again, that's kind of where I'm at with this. I keep repeating myself.”

Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, said that as someone who has dealt with addiction, he can understand both sides.

“That's a tough conversation,” he said. “I empathize with both Commissioner Wantz and Commissioner Rothstein’s position on this. It’s tough, but somewhere there needs to be a compromise reached because the times are changing.”

Frazier asked him what he thought the solution to the distance requirement should be.

“I think, as a former alcoholic, [alcohol] has a greater impact on us [than medical cannabis],” Bouchat said. “I find it more dangerous.”

He said he doesn’t know what the answer is, but if medical cannabis is being zoned as a pharmacy, he said, it makes sense for it to fall under regulations for pharmacies.

Recreational cannabis

“If this turns into recreational use,” Frazier said, “and my feeling is it probably will in a few years, then it has to be a different set of regulations for that.”

Once the medical facilities are in place, though, Wantz said he fears it will be easy to increase their distributive freedoms to include recreational use.

“I appreciate that argument, but I am 100 percent against the recreational use of marijuana,” Rothstein said. “I think the focus for us is the medical use of cannabis, and how it should be distributed. It is not the same argument for the recreational use of marijuana.”

The draft of comprehensive rezoning for the commercial, industrial and employment campus districts can be found on the Planning Department section of the county website, under Comprehensive Rezoning.

Two public outreach meetings have been scheduled for later this month: from 6 to 8 p.m. on March 26 at the Carroll County Office Building in Westminster, and from 6 to 8 p.m. on March 27 at the South Carroll Senior Center in Eldersburg.

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