Medical marijuana debate

Zoning for dispensaries should be no more restrictive than for a CVS or Walgreens

Local officials meeting at the Maryland Association of Counties convention in Ocean City last week had plenty of questions during a session set aside to discuss the state's new rules governing medical marijuana. Among the most intensely debated issues: How to ensure the legalization of pot for medical use doesn't encourage abuses by patients and physicians, as it has in some other states, or create a public nuisance in areas where marijuana dispensaries are located. Those are all valid concerns expected to be addressed in the regulations the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission will issue next month.

In the meantime, however, we hope county lawmakers will hold off at least until then on enacting additional restrictions of their own on medical marijuana. People are understandably nervous about what the law will mean for their communities, but it would be a pity if local lawmakers overcompensated by loading medical marijuana down with so many restrictions and obstacles to access that it can't help the patients with cancer, epilepsy and other illnesses the law was intended to benefit. Rather than undermine the program before it even gets off the ground the wiser course would be to wait and see whether it can be successful.

Several counties appear receptive to the idea of allowing marijuana growing and processing facilities to operate in their jurisdictions. Those businesses are expected to create as many as several hundred new jobs for local workers as well as generate significant tax revenues. Maryland's medical marijuana law allows the state to issue up to 15 licenses to grow and process the plants, which can be carried out in remote rural parts of the state or in industrial parks set off from densely populated areas.

But the dispensaries where people can buy cannabis with a doctor's recommendation are another matter. By definition, they have to be located in places where patients can get to them easily, even if they don't own a car, which means putting them in large population centers accessible by public transit. Otherwise the state might as well not have a medical marijuana law at all if people who need the therapy can't benefit from it.

That is why county officials should be wary of imposing overly restrictive zoning laws on where dispensaries can open and how they can operate, as some have suggested. Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond recently introduced a bill that would require dispensaries to affiliate themselves with a health or medical center and locate at least 1,000 feet away from schools, day care centers, houses of worship, libraries and parks. They would also have to be at least 2,500 feet away from one another. We agree with state Sen. Robert Zirkin that hedging the dispensaries behind so many barriers would make it nearly impossible for a patient to pick up their prescription almost anywhere in Baltimore County.

In principle there's no reason medical marijuana dispensaries should be treated differently than traditional pharmacies or drug stores. No one would suggest banning those businesses near churches or schools, even though pharmacies routinely dispense prescription drugs that are far more dangerous than cannabis. The zoning laws applied to marijuana dispensaries ought to be no more restrictive than those governing a CVS or Walgreens.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz thinks the dispensaries can be handled through already existing zoning laws and that new legislation is unnecessary at this point. We're willing to concede that situations may arise in the future that could require county lawmakers to tweak the law to deal with unexpected problems. But that hasn't happened yet. At the very least officials should try the approach that's been mapped out by the state first to see whether it works. They can always modify it later if the need arises.

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