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Sen. Robert A. "Bobby" Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. (File photo)

Zirkin says he may seek to ban zoning restrictions on pot facilities

The chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee said he is considering legislation that would prevent local and municipal governments from imposing zoning restrictions that would prevent medical marijuana operations — dispensaries in particular — from opening.

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, said he is preparing to draft the proposed legislation in response to a bill that is being considered in Baltimore County and sponsored by his former legislative aide who he later supported in her run for county council.

“We’re not going to permit some council person to willy-nilly gum up progress on this issue,” Zirkin said of a bill introduced last week by Councilwoman Vicki Almond. “One Maryland, one law.”

Almond described the legislation, which imposes restrictions where medical marijuana dispensaries can be located and how close they can be to residential areas, schools and day care facilities, as a starting point. She said she and other council members want to have input into where such facilities can be built within the communities they represent.

The legislation Zirkin is considering also comes at a time when a number of local and municipal governments are looking at the issue and questioning whether current zoning laws need to be tweaked to accommodate the medical marijuana industry.

Leslie Knapp, legal and policy council for the Maryland Association of Counties, said that while Baltimore County may be the first to consider zoning legislation related to medical cannabis facilities, it is not alone in looking at the issue.

“A lot of counties are waiting to see what kind of guidance the state will have on this issue,” said Knapp, who said he had not read the Baltimore County bill and declined to comment on the proposal directly. “Counties do have the right to impose responsible zoning regulations. We regulate tobacco, we regulate alcohol. There are reasonable location restrictions that can be put into place.”

Knapp said much of the discussion so far is centered on the issue of growing facilities.

Marijuana policy has generated so much interest among local governments that the association of county governments added a medical cannabis seminar just two weeks before officials converge on Ocean City for the organization’s annual summer conference.

Maryland law will allow for up to 15 licensed growing facilities in the state. Rural counties, which have fewer zoning restrictions and more agricultural areas, are the focus of those efforts.

Last month, Washington County commissioners unanimously approved a plan to build a 52,000-square-foot growing facility that could ultimately expand to more than 170,000 square feet if it is approved for a license and is successful.

In Easton, a group is seeking permission to turn a vacant building that formerly housed Black & Decker into a growing facility. Two others are being considered in Kent County.

The location of dispensaries is also likely to be a topic of some conversation as it relates to zoning. Maryland law allows for up to two dispensaries in each state legislative district — a total of 94 statewide. As much as 30 percent of those licenses could go in the 14 districts that are wholly within or shared by Baltimore City and County.

But supporters in the legislature and organizations that advocate for legalized medical and recreational marijuana say they believe current zoning laws, especially as they relate to agriculture, are sufficient enough to cover cannabis growing.

“I don’t think it should be a problem and I don’t think it will be a problem,” said Don Murphy, a Republican former Maryland delegate who is now deputy director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. “I don’t disagree with the idea that counties have the right to impose zoning restrictions, but they should not be any more restrictive than those related to tobacco or alcohol or whatever.”

Murphy went on to say that his organization would likely not get involved in any legislation that attempts to supersede local government authority unless a law was unduly restrictive.

“We believe in local control,” Murphy said. “The federal government should defer to the state, and the state should defer to the local government. We would probably come in if it was so restrictive that you couldn’t get (medical marijuana) anywhere. We would want it available like medications are available. This should be treated like medicine and should be available like medicine.”