Zoning plan paves way for marijuana facilities

Zoning plan paves way for marijuana facilities

CUMBERLAND – Facing increasing interest in developing marijuana cultivation facilities in Cumberland, town officials are setting new rules for where such facilities are allowed.

The Cumberland Planning Board last week recommended to the Town Council that it approve an amendment to the town’s zoning ordinance setting firm rules for marijuana cultivation. The council was set to consider the amendment at its meeting Wednesday evening, Dec. 6.

The new article in the zoning ordinance would allow cultivation of marijuana in an industrial zone by special use permit.

Jonathan Stevens, director of planning and community development, told the Planning Board last week that the existing ordinance is “silent” on marijuana, even as many other communities develop new rules to deal with the state’s development of cultivation facilities.

At Mayor Bill Murray’s guidance, said Stevens, he recommended that the town “move as far as we need to, but not any farther.”

Cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana has been legal in Rhode Island since 2006, though the drug has yet to be fully legalized for recreational use.

Amendments passed in April to the 2006 Medical Marijuana Act authorized creation of licensed cultivators, or “production hubs,” which sell directly to authorized compassion centers. As of July, the state had approved 35 cultivation facilities.

As of August, there were 16,418 patients in the state eligible to use marijuana and 1,400 active caregivers.

Medical marijuana patients and licensed caregiver cardholders are still allowed to cultivate a small number of plants for patient use under the new marijuana ordinance.

Stevens and planning consultant David Westcott said there are “many restrictions” in state law on how the licensed growing facilities are to be run, but cities and towns are on their own when it comes to where these facilities are located.

Some communities have moved to ban marijuana growing in all zoning districts, a restriction that was overturned in Smithfield in state Superior Court in September. Other communities have allowed such facilities in certain zones.

Westcott said all growing facilities are required by the state to be heavily secured, and officials at the state level can now look in on any facility using a camera, he said. All surveillance footage is authenticated and archived.

Stevens said the recommendations to the Planning Board came at the advice of the chief of police and town solicitor.

Planning Board member Harry MacDonald initially said he couldn’t support the new ordinance because of how it allowed caregivers and cardholders “potential uncontrolled production” of marijuana, but Westcott noted that that issue is a “constitutional” one. The state has upheld the use of medical marijuana as a right.

“State law makes this legal,” he said. “We can’t supersede state law.”

Requirements in the amendment include full lighting, security and alarm systems, and any other restrictions mandated by the state. These are big and secure buildings, with three to five employees and windows that are blocked off, said Westcott. All marijuana is transported by lockbox and GPS tracker.

“Security is intense,” he said.

If the state does legalize recreational marijuana, the dynamics will change, said Westcott.

“All bets are off after that,” he said.