UPPER MARLBORO –The county council has not yet had its last dance with Mary Jane. On March 2, the council’s Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee addressed CB 5-2016, introduced by Council Member and Committee Chair Andrea Harrison, which seeks to severely restrict the locations where medical marijuana dispensaries, growers and processors may operate in […]
UPPER MARLBORO –The county council has not yet had its last dance with Mary Jane.
On March 2, the council’s Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee addressed CB 5-2016, introduced by Council Member and Committee Chair Andrea Harrison, which seeks to severely restrict the locations where medical marijuana dispensaries, growers and processors may operate in Prince George’s County. The committee heard from the public, various county agencies and even its own members about problems with the bill as drafted.
Harrison announced the committee would not be taking any action on the bill at the meeting, preferring to wait until changes and amendments can be made.
She said she and other colleagues had separately been working on legislation dealing with medical marijuana that was then combined into CB 5-2016.
“As I understand it, they were working with Planning (Board) staff, which is actually where the majority of this bill came from, the way I understood it. If that is not the case, I apologize if I misunderstood,” Harrison said. “With that, we certainly will not move forward and we will work with you.”
The bill would prohibit medical marijuana dispensaries from opening within 1,000 feet of any residential property, house of worship, public library or park, or public or private school and restrict them to commercial and industrial zones. It also includes requirements for security, advertising, inspections and more.
The planning board did not take an official position on the bill, but did provide staff comments, which highlighted issues such as incomplete definitions or ones that did not match those in state law, terms that are too vague, such as “flex office space,” and possible preemption by state regulations.
“Many of the operational aspects that are in the bill are already preempted by the state, i.e., the state outlines what should be done regarding operations,” said Rana Hightower, an intergovernmental affairs coordinator with the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission.
Maurene McNeil, the county’s zoning hearing examiner, added that other preemptions could include the lighting and security requirements and the mandate that all growing be done indoors.
Hightower also questioned why this zoning bill didn’t deal with typical zoning issues like landscaping, building setbacks and parking and loading standards.
Conversely, John Gwynn, associate county attorney, worried that some of the provisions in the bill were not zoning-related, like the requirement that payments for marijuana products be deposited in a vault.
“The concern from the office of law is there’s no nexus to zoning and planning for that requirement,” he said.
Among the materials submitted by the office of law was a letter from Kathleen Rowe, a deputy counsel in the Attorney General of Maryland’s office, from Sept. 21, 2015, addressing the authority of counties to impose restrictive zoning on medical marijuana businesses.
“It is my view that while state law clearly allows counties to impose restrictions on the location of medical cannabis facilities, it does not permit the county to effectively bar these facilities,” the letter reads.
The concern is that the bill does just that.
“The bill as currently drafted has no sites within District 2 or Three (where a dispensary could locate). That’s a problem,” Councilwoman Deni Taveras said. “I am respectful of having residential zones respected, but to have it not near any dwelling doesn’t make any sense given the density in my district.”
“I think a dispensary in an industrial zone, to me, is a danger waiting to happen. On the other side, not including M-X-T (mixed use zone) on the other end also doesn’t make any sense.”
She said it would help them come to an agreement if the council decided what areas would be appropriate for dispensaries, rather than simply where it was inappropriate.
“I’m concerned that we really need to have a clearer vision of where we would like these dispensaries to be located,” Taveras said.
Attorney Matthew Gorman, representing several dispensary applicants, agreed.
“I hope this council looks at what the goal is in terms of what problems they’re trying to solve. If it’s a public safety issue, if it’s an issue of being too close to schools,” he said.
Taveras revealed her vision to the council: that the dispensaries be located in upscale, urban, walkable areas where they can serve as economic engines in thriving, highly-trafficked communities.
“I think it is stigmatizing the locations of where these potential dispensaries could be located, and I’m concerned with that. I think we need to bring them out from the shadows and into the light,” she said.
Others on the committee did not want dispensaries in the county at all.
“We don’t want to give any more (leeway), quite honestly, because the majority of our residents don’t want it,” Harrison said. “But we are bound by law.”
Councilwoman Karen Toles agreed, questioning why people would want to invite drugs into their communities.
“I certainly don’t want it in mine. I’m going to state that for the record right now,” she said. “So Ms. Taveras can have my dispensaries.”
“The areas in my district that have been approached, for example like the city of Hyattsville, are highly in favor of these business ventures,” Taveras said. She also stressed that they are dealing with marijuana as a medicine, not a drug.
With the committee taking no action, the bill’s sponsors will have the opportunity to work to improve the bill before discussing it again.
The state Medical Marijuana Commission could announce which dispensary applicants get the green light to proceed as early as this summer.