Medical Marijuana: A Crossroads between Land Use Planning and Environmental Health

By Zemel, Felix I. | Journal of Environmental Health, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Medical Marijuana: A Crossroads between Land Use Planning and Environmental Health


Zemel, Felix I., Journal of Environmental Health


During the November 2011 election, voters in the commonwealth of Massachusetts decided to join 18 other states in legalizing a form of medical marijuana. The law, which was approved through referendum, permits for the sitting of up to 35 medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the commonwealth (Galvin, 2012). The location of a medical marijuana dispensary can have significant impacts on the local economy and the land value of the residents of its host community, and can increase pub lic safety concerns. Many people do not realize the environmental health implications that may ensue. The trend toward permitting medical marijuana dispensaries, and deciding where to place them, is an excellent example of the interrelationship between fields of land use planning and environmental health.

The worlds of land use planning and environmental health are very intertwined, as has been seen at many points throughout history. The classic examples of this interrelationship are the London cholera outbreak of 1850, which also started the field of epidemiology (Johnson, 2006), and the landmark zoning case of Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co. (272 U.S. 365 [1926]), in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the act of zoning by a community was a lawful practice. More recently, laws related to the siting of solid waste/ recycling facilities, along with other "noisome trades" (i.e., the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and state solid waste facility/site assignment regulations), illustrate the continuous bond that the two fields have with one another. The most recent example is the conundrum of siting medical marijuana dispensaries and the public/environmental health implications that these locations may have.

The new Massachusetts law permits the siting of up to 35 medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the state. The new law also permits individuals to cultivate medical marijuana in their homes if they meet one of the hardships defined in the law. Multiple environmental health concerns must be addressed by regulators when devising rules and regulations aimed at these two land uses in particular. Regulators must ensure that dispensaries are not unevenly distributed in environmental justice communities or neighborhoods as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2013). According to a study by Mills (2011), the average marijuana plant consumes approximately one gallon of water per day. Regulators will have to calculate average daily water usage and implement a particular mechanism to ensure that onsite, centralized wastewater treatment, or sewer systems are designed to accept the additional capacity. Many state laws, including in Massachusetts, also appear to permit the preparation and sale of marijuana-containing foods (e.g., brownies, cookies, cakes, and lollipops). Officials will need to address specific food safety concerns in order to ensure that food is being handled safely and that the risk of foodborne illness or potential side effects are minimized.

Many of these environmental health concerns can be controlled through careful zoning practices by regulatory authorities. Traditional zoning methods designate specific areas of the community that can be used for specific land use categories (residential, commercial, industrial, manufacturing, agricultural, etc.). A local planning board can then create what is called an "overlay district," which further restricts land uses within a specific zoning area (e.g., adult entertainment district, historic preservation overlay district, and other character-specific overlay districts). In addition, Chapter 40A of Massachusetts General Laws allows municipalities to require specific land uses to obtain a special permits, which can be granted by a special permit granting authority (SPGA) (Brooks, 2010). As a condition of issuing a special permit, an SPGA may implement specific use limitations as well as fees associated with the specially permitted use in order to offset any costs incurred by the municipality. …

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