Counties Grapple With Zoning For Medical Cannabis

As the reality of licensed medical cannabis growing facilities and dispensaries looms closer, counties and municipalities are grappling with how to properly zone and cite such facilities.  While no county has expressed interest in banning the facilities, debate is underway as to the proper level of zoning authority counties should have regarding location and citing.  While medical cannabis advocates tend a favor a minimum of local government oversight, counties and municipalities must balance valid public access issues with community concerns, public nuisance issues, security and infrastructure requirements of the facilities, and federal law and funding issues for medical facilities and pharmacies.  Additionally, they must consider whether the zoning they create now would still work if the State were to ultimately legalize marijuana in the future.

Zoning issues were one of the topics discussed at a medical cannabis session at the 2015 MACo Summer Conference and will very likely be a key topic at MACo’s 2015 December Winter Conference.

2015-08-18 Conduit Street Article on MACo Summer Conference Medical Cannabis Session

The debate intensified with the introduction of legislation by Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond, who is seeking to comprehensively address county siting concerns at the start of the licensing process.  Almond has stated that she supports medical cannabis and that the provisions of the introduced bill were unintentionally too restrictive and could result in a de facto ban of dispensaries in the county. She also stated that if the bill were to move it would be amended to have reasonable zoning and siting limitations. Baltimore County is the first county to entertain legislation on the issue.

An August 14, 2015, Baltimore Sun Editorial argued that there are valid concerns that need to be addressed with medical cannabis but cautioned county lawmakers from immediately imposing additional restrictions.

[Prior to the issuance of regulations by the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission], 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.

While noting that some counties see growing and processing facilities as potential job and revenue creators, the editorial saw the location of dispensaries as more problematic.  The editorial argued for dealing with dispensaries under existing zoning laws and treating them no different from a pharmacy:
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.
Almond submitted an August 18 response to the Sun editorial, arguing that the State’s medical cannabis law always provided for the application of local zoning and that her proposed law would bring clarity and certainty to the process.  She also stated that zoning should also account for the possibility of the full legalization of medical marijuana in the future.

A fundamental rule of zoning dictates that if something is not explicitly in the zoning regulations then it is not in the zoning regulations. Currently medical cannabis is not specifically mentioned in Baltimore County law. By authoring legislation regarding medical marijuana, my goal is to provide clarity for both investors in medical cannabis facilities and citizens who want to ensure that these new growing, processing and dispensing businesses will locate in areas acceptable to the community. …

Further, Marylanders do not expect county government to put its head in the sand and ignore what likely comes next. The examples of Colorado and Oregon, combined with statements by members of the state legislature make it clear that sometime in the next “year or two” legislation for the legalization of recreational marijuana is a real possibility in Maryland.

If this happens, the likely first locations growing and selling recreational marijuana will be the existing medical cannabis growers and dispensaries. Therefore, my constituents will rightly expect me to take this into consideration when legislating the zoning of these facilities.

Almond also stated that she was “certain” her proposed legislation will be amended and changed as needed, both prior to its potential passage and in the future.  She also asked the General Assembly to respect local land use authority:

Based on my discussions at the MACo Summer Conference, I am confident that county government throughout Maryland will meet the new challenge of medical cannabis and whatever lies in our state’s future. I request that the members of the General Assembly respect the role of county government as we begin to grapple with medical cannabis and the specter of recreational marijuana.