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BOSTON (AP) - Massachusetts towns cannot bar medical marijuana treatment centers from being established within their borders, but they can impose zoning rules on the dispensaries, state Attorney General Martha Coakley ruled on Wednesday.
Coakley struck down a Wakefield bylaw that would have barred the treatment centers, but separately approved a bylaw adopted in Burlington that places a moratorium on the facilities until the town completes a further study of zoning issues.
Massachusetts voters passed a ballot question in November allowing for the use of medicinal marijuana for patients with certain medical conditions, including cancer, Parkinson's disease and AIDS. The new law allows for as many as 35 dispensaries to open around the state where patients can receive up to a 60-day supply of marijuana.
"The (law's) legislative purpose could not be served if a municipality could prohibit treatment centers within its borders, for if one municipality could do so, presumably all could do so," Coakley wrote in her decision rejecting the Wakefield bylaw that would have banned the dispensaries outright.
She added, however, that her review also concluded there was nothing to prohibit cities and towns from adopting zoning rules for the treatment centers that could, for example, restrict where a dispensary could be located.
Coakley's office reviews all town bylaws before they can take effect. But the attorney general does not have power to throw out ordinances passed by cities, which can be challenged only in the courts.
Two communities that neighbor Wakefield, the town of Reading and the city of Melrose, have also approved bans on the dispensaries.
Ruth Clay, who serves as health director for all three communities, said she was disappointed with Coakley's ruling but would comply with it.
"We were never morally opposed to medical marijuana. We were very concerned about how (the ballot question) was written, with a lot of opportunity for abuse," Clay said.
"We were concerned about protecting the consumers, as well as protecting the community," she added.
Wakefield and Reading will now examine other options, including a temporary moratorium, Clay said, while in Melrose - which was not directly affected by Tuesday's decision - city officials will now discuss whether to move forward with its ban. She noted, however, that the attorney general's ruling could be cited by an individual or group in a future legal challenge against the ordinance.
John Petrin, town administrator in Burlington, welcomed Coakley's decision to uphold his community's bylaw. He said town officials would now have time to study the potential impacts and decide on areas within the town where a marijuana dispensary might be allowed to locate in the future.
The law allowing the use of marijuana for patients with serious medical conditions took effect Jan. 1, but the state Department of Public Health has until May 1 to issue regulations on who will run the dispensaries, who will work there and how they will be operated. The state must also decide what constitutes a 60-day supply patients can receive.
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