Last week, Westborough became the first municipality in Massachusetts to opt out of the future recreational marijuana industry. The town’s residents, the majority of whom opposed the adult use referendum in November, voted 1,192 to 294, slamming the door on commercial cannabis establishments.
The statewide ballot initiative, which passed by a 54 percent majority, allows disinclined localities to exercise this type of local control. Under the new law, a city or town can pass reasonable zoning measures related to cannabis operations. But any severe limitation—prohibiting an entire type of establishment, trimming the number of retailers to below 20% of the number of liquor retail licenses issued, or allowing fewer retailers than medical marijuana treatment centers—requires a majority vote of the residents in the locality.
Other towns have chosen instead to delay marijuana retail, which does not require a separate vote on a municipal ballot or at a Town Meeting. In January, the Attorney General’s Office approved a local zoning bylaw for West Bridgewater that imposes a moratorium on recreational marijuana businesses until mid-2018. Under Massachusetts decisional law, moratoria for the purpose of “comprehensive study” by a municipality of a particular land-use issue are permitted. Moratoria are temporary. West Bridgewater’s lasts two years—a time period the Attorney General concluded was reasonable. The Attorney General’s West Bridgewater ruling provides guidance to the dozens of other communities that may wish to impose similar moratoria, buying time to develop zoning rules and procedures consistent with the state’s forthcoming regulations. Expect more municipalities to follow suit.