East Lyme to allow medical marijuana dispensaries

East Lyme — Town officials recently changed zoning regulations to allow for a medical marijuana dispensary to open as long as it obtains the needed state permits and licenses and adheres to any stipulations dictated by the zoning department.

The Zoning Commission voted 4-2 last month to approve the change, stating that a medical marijuana dispensary could locate within the town’s Commercial A zones — which are located along West Main Street, Boston Post Road and Flanders Road. Black Point Road, which is also located in the Commercial A zone, was excluded.

Under the new rules, Chairman Matthew Walker said a medical marijuana dispensary would not be treated as a pharmacy, as is the case in other towns statewide, and would fall under the town’s special permit section of its zoning rules.

Zoning official Bill Mulholland said last week he did not know of any dispensaries looking to locate in East Lyme but the zoning change was “a way to get ahead of any potential applications rather waiting to respond to one down the line.”

The decision, however, had divided town officials.

Supporters of the regulations said the changes were made to aid the town should any dispensaries wish to locate here, while opponents worried such changes would act as an invitation to such businesses.

A handful of town officials spoke against the changes at a January public hearing.

First Selectman Mark Nickerson, speaking as a private citizen, worried that passing the regulations would encourage dispensaries to locate in town. He said he would rather wait to see if the state legalizes recreational marijuana in the coming year before making the change.

Selectwoman Rose Ann Hardy also opposed the changes at the hearing, saying she would not like to see a dispensary in East Lyme's small-town, community environment — something the town has worked hard to advocate for.

Walker, who voted against the zoning changes, said in a phone interview, “I’m an elected official, and as a member responsible for land use, I could not, in good conscience, respect a potential business activity which is not in harmony with the town.”

“We are a family-oriented, education-oriented community. We’ve also become a destination for tourism," he continued. "Even though I respect the decision of the other commission members, I did not think it was appropriate to zone for such a business.”

With all that in mind, Walker said the state already has stringent laws in place regulating medical marijuana dispensaries and that a dispensary looking to locate to East Lyme would have to follow those laws, which include dictating how close a dispensary can locate next to a school, or a church, for example, as well as stipulations put in place by the commission.

He said that because of the infrequency at which the state issues licenses for dispensaries — the state’s first licenses were issued in 2013 and in 2015, and an additional nine licenses were issued just in December — it is unlikely that a dispensary could come to town soon, adding that obtaining a license from the state to run a dispensary was a very difficult process. Out of the 73 applications the state received in 2018 to open a dispensary, only nine were approved.  

The Day reported in December that since the state last issued dispensary licenses in 2015, the medical marijuana program has grown from 8,228 to 30,448 patients. The number of conditions that qualify adults for medical marijuana has increased from 11 to 31, and there are more than 1,000 prescribing doctors.

Walker said that should the state legalize recreational marijuana, the zoning commission would still have the discretion to regulate that business as it saw fit.

The idea to first include such regulations within town zoning laws was brought forward to the commission last summer by member Norman Peck, a self-described conservative who has been a commission member for nearly three decades. He argued then that the town would be “thinking ahead” by putting regulations into place in case an application for a dispensary does come forward, as was the case in New London in 2018. A subcommittee was then organized to explore the issue before being voted on in January.

“So many other towns in the region allow for these businesses, and I feel we are outdated by not allowing it,” Peck said. “I believe what’s good for the people is good for any town, and a dispensary could benefit many East Lyme residents.’

Presently, Montville is the only town in the region to have a dispensary, though Groton will soon be getting its own. New London, too, passed its own zoning regulations for a dispensary after a pharmacist from New Britain proposed to place a dispensary there last year. That application was denied by the state.

A 15-day appeal period on the zoning amendments began last Friday, Mulholland said.

m.biekert@theday.com

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