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(The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Will proposed zoning law block marijuana facilities in Baltimore County?

Proponents of medical marijuana say a recently introduced zoning bill would be so restrictive that it would make it nearly impossible to open a growing facility or dispensary in Baltimore County.

Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Democrat and supporter of medical marijuana, said she and other members of the council hope to use the bill to establish where the businesses can locate before the state program becomes operational sometime next year.

“The county council needs to have control over where these facilities go,” said Almond. “We need to be really careful with this. I also think the council has a right to look at where we want dispensaries to go. We have a right to do that for our constituents.”

The bill, which some believe may be the first of its kind in Maryland that would establish zoning regulations aimed specifically at the medical marijuana industry,  requires that growing or dispensing facilities be located in certain zoning areas but also a minimum of 1,000 feet away from churches, schools, day care facilities and residential areas.

The facilities would have to be at least 2,500 feet away from another similar operation. The bill would also restrict where growing operations could locate.

The zoning bill is one of the first attempts by a local jurisdiction to try and conform current law to the addition of medical marijuana facilities. A number of counties and municipal governments around the state are beginning to raise questions about updating local laws in preparation for the licensing and opening of as many as two dispensaries in each of the state’s 47 legislative districts.

Is it necessary?

Marijuana dispensary. (Capital News Service file)

Marijuana dispensary. (Capital News Service file)

Some state legislators who support medical marijuana say Baltimore County does not need to update zoning laws and no local codes are needed for what they say will be a tightly controlled and heavily regulated industry.

“My initial reaction is that this is not necessary,” said Del. Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County and a longtime supporter and sponsor of the state’s medical marijuana laws. “I don’t see any reason why this would be treated any differently than any other business enterprise.”

The state commission tasked with overseeing the program and drafting regulations briefly considered requiring similar setbacks of 500 feet but withdrew those rules after a state Department of Planning map showed that the proposed rules would make it nearly impossible to open a dispensary in any highly developed area.

Morhaim and others said the proposed county law would create a similar issue.

“This is an unnecessary piece of legislation that if enacted would do tremendous damage to the patients in Baltimore County who have waited for the program,” said Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “My advice to the county would be for them to take a step back from the edge of the cliff that they’ve walked up to.”

Zirkin said passage of the law would “effectively kill medical marijuana in Baltimore County.”

 Isn’t for recreation

The bill proposed by Almond is similar to other county laws that limit how close other businesses, such as tattoo parlors and liquor stores, can be to schools and churches.

But Morhaim said dispensaries are more analogous to pharmacies rather than legal alcoholic beverages sold for recreational use.

“This isn’t a recreational use,” Morhaim said. “If this were for recreational use then you could make those points.”

Morhaim went on to say that growing facilities should be governed similar to other farming land uses.

“If I wanted to grow orchids I could grow orchids without any zoning changes,” Morhaim said. “Cannabis is the same thing. It’s another plant.”

In 2002, the county passed a law restricting the location of methadone clinics in the county that was sponsored by then Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat who represented the same district that Almond does now. The bill required a buffer of 750 feet from residential and other areas and resulted in an eight-year battle in federal court over possible violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The clinic that sued the county ultimately withdrew the lawsuit.

Larry Schmidt, a land use attorney for Towson-based Smith, Gildea & Schmidt who also served as the county’s zoning hearing officer for more than a decade, said that restrictions will make it difficult to locate a new facility — but only to a point.

““Is it going to be a total limitation? Probably not,” said Schmidt. “Not as long as you can seek a variance.”

Kamenetz, who is in his second term as county executive, said he has concerns about the proposed law, including the possibility it could provoke another potential ADA-related lawsuit.

“We do have problems with the bill,” Kamenetz said. “It’s a health issue. Our position is that within our existing zoning law we can address this issue.”

Kamenetz said methadone clinics are different from medical marijuana dispensaries because of the high number of “people hanging around in the morning and afternoon” to receive their doses.

‘We’re not panicked’

The legislation will be watched carefully by pro-medical marijuana groups.

Darrell Carrington, executive director and lobbyist for the Maryland Cannabis Industry Association, said he believes that Baltimore County is at the forefront of what will likely be a “county by county discussion on zoning.”

“We’re not panicked at all,” Carrington said. “Maybe these (laws) aren’t necessary and can be taken care of under existing law.”

Almond acknowledged that the initial language in the bill, which will have a hearing later this month followed  by a vote, could be restrictive enough to make it difficult to open a dispensary in many areas of the county outside of the more rural northern areas. She called the bill “a sign of strength from the council” and said she was open to compromise and believed it would be amended before a final vote.

“I’m not withdrawing the bill,” Almond said.