BOSTON (AP) - Voters convincingly backed a state law that allows marijuana to be used by people with debilitating medical conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease. Yet many communities now appear hesitant to open their borders to facilities where the drug would be legally cultivated and sold.
Dozens of cities and towns have approved or are considering temporary moratoriums on medical marijuana outlets while others are drafting zoning rules to restrict where dispensaries can be located.
Moratoriums are in place in many communities where last November's ballot question passed by wide margins. In Sheffield, for example, 71 percent of voters endorsed medical marijuana; in Ipswich, just under two-thirds of voters approved it.
The local roadblocks worry patients who are waiting for access to the drug.
"Everyone says, 'I don't want it in my town, not in my neighborhood.' So where do I get it?" asks Donald Parker, of Middleborough, who says marijuana helps him control a rare condition that causes prolonged bouts of vomiting and weight loss.
Attorney General Martha Coakley ruled this year that towns could not ban dispensaries outright but may impose moratoriums or zoning restrictions. To date, Coakley has certified about 80 town moratoriums. A number of cities that aren't required to get Coakley's approval have also imposed moratoriums.
Local officials believe caution is warranted.
Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said cities and towns need extra time to prepare for the dispensaries and ensure they don't spring up in residential neighborhoods, near schools or in other inappropriate places. Zoning changes, he added, can take months to approve, particularly in towns where final decisions rest with a town meeting that convenes only once or twice a year.
"It gives them time, but it doesn't inoculate those communities from having a medical marijuana facility," Beckwith noted.
The state Department of Public Health gave initial clearance to 158 applicants that are competing for a maximum of 35 dispensaries allowed under the law. The agency hopes to award licenses by early 2014, but with some moratoriums extending to June 30 or longer, advocates wonder when facilities might actually open.
Valerio Romano, a Boston-based attorney who represents several applicants, said the moratoriums are a "real headache" for some clients.
Romano said he spends considerable time trying to convince municipal officials that their worst fears about the dispensaries are unfounded.
There will be "no loitering out front, no one driving back-and-forth stoned," he said.
Once open, the facilities will be nearly "invisible" to the general public, and agreeing to host a dispensary can benefit a community, Romano said. Patients coming from other towns may stop at local stores or restaurants, for example, and dispensaries could be subject to future excise taxes, yielding revenue for municipalities.
Some communities do appear more welcoming, including Shrewsbury, where 59 percent of voters backed medical marijuana.
"They didn't think it was their job to stand in the way of the public interest, which was demonstrated in the ballot vote," town manager Daniel Morgado said of a recent decision by selectmen against a proposed moratorium.
Two applicants have approached Shrewsbury, one interested in opening a medical marijuana dispensary and the other in operating a cultivation facility, and either could fit within Shrewsbury's existing regulatory framework without increased demands on police or other services, Morgado said.
The town of Deerfield also skipped a moratorium and is considering a plan to restrict dispensaries to industrial zones, said Wendy Foxmyn, interim town administrator.
Deerfield backed the ballot question by a 68-32 margin, but Foxmyn said residents' concerns are understandable.
"To vote for something and then realize it could come to our own town are separate issues for people to think about," Foxmyn said. Three companies have shown interest in a dispensary in Deerfield.
Matthew Allen, director of Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance - the group that spearheaded the ballot question - said he remained encouraged that concerns could be overcome in time to begin opening medical marijuana facilities next spring.
Coakley has said no moratorium on dispensaries can linger beyond Dec. 31, 2014.
"Massachusetts has voted to allow for these, but we want to make sure that we also allow for public safety issues and public health issues" to be resolved, she said.