NSMH Weighs in on Pot Shop Pitched for Porter St

On Wednesday (tonight) at the East Boston Social Centers at 6:30 p.m. the City of Boston will host a community meeting regarding to proposal to place a retail marijuana facility at 24 Porter St., next door to North Suffolk Mental Health Association (NSMHA).

The pot shop being pitched by Omnicann would occupy the former Spotless Dry Cleaners on Porter Street, but some are not too happy with the proposed location.

NSMHA CEO Dr. Jackie Moore, whose agency deals not only with mental health  but also substance abuse issues in the community, suggests to the City of Boston that a precautionary approach be taken to minimize unintended consequences of the location of cannabis retail stores.

Moore, whose clients seek sobriety daily at NSMHA, said the number of cannabis stores, including density and distance controls that prevent clustering and that maintain buffer zones around well-defined areas where children and youth and other vulnerable groups, such as those in treatment for mental illness and or addiction frequent.

“North Suffolk encourages the Boston City Council to proceed with caution for two reasons,” said Moore. “First, there is little reliable and conclusive evidence to support what safe cannabis use looks like for individuals and communities. Second, it will be easier to prevent future harm by removing regulations in the future once more knowledge exists than it will be to later add regulation. Of the individuals we serve in our mental health and addiction programs and services, a substantial proportion have used cannabis, and of those who use cannabis, a large percentage also have used alcohol and tobacco. The use of these substances affects health, mental health, decision making and judgment and elevates risk factors that affect the individual and the community.”

Moore said NSMHA is encouraging the City Council to consider unintended consequences such as clustering of stores, negative impact on social determinants of health and vulnerable populations in its deliberations.

“We are particularly concerned about the vulnerable populations that we serve in North Suffolk services and programs that provide treatment for mental illness, addictions and co-occurring illnesses,” she said. “The individuals we serve include youth and young adults who are particularly vulnerable to the availability of substances such as cannabis and whose brains and bodies are negatively impacted by the use of cannabis. The individuals we serve are in various stages of contemplation with regard to their sobriety and recovery and often are socially and financially disadvantaged. They are vulnerable to the visible and continual presence of substances that can serve as a trigger for a lapse or relapse.”

Moore said NSMHA in calling of officials to consider zoning regulations by using population and geographic based information to restrict the location of cannabis retail stores to limit density and availability.

“In particular, in addition to the minimum distance restriction between cannabis retail stores, consider a buffer zone between retail stores and mental health and addiction treatment facilities and programs that are licensed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” said Moore. “For community safety and health protections, a cannabis education component and community engagement plan will be an important part of the implementation. Cannabis legalization is complex and there are potential and unknown legal implications, as well as health and community impacts. We recognize the importance of fostering a healthy relationship between cannabis retailers and the community with the common goal of healthy community integration.”

City Councilor Lydia Edwards has called for a hearing to discuss potential policy changes affecting the siting of enterprises serving cannabis, as well as alcohol in the immediate vicinity of substance abuse treatment facilities.

Edwards pointed to the proposed dispensaries on Porter Street next door to NSMHA as the inspiration for the hearing.

Currently, the City of Boston regulates the distance between cannabis establishments at one-half mile and creates a 500-foot buffer between such businesses and K-12 schools. The City also regulates businesses that serve or sell alcohol through licensing and zoning, but has not enacted a similar distance-based buffer.

Zoning changes typically do not impact existing enterprises, but would apply to new development and could potentially apply to substantially renovated buildings. The hearing explored whether such a buffer should be created, potential impacts and how to create parity between industries.

“The council will hold a hearing on the merits of using buffers to prevent siting of certain businesses immediately adjacent to substance abuse treatment facilities,” said Edwards. “It should be noted that the city is already deploying buffers under other conditions. In the absence of a clear and transparent local approval process with weighted criteria, the city has used zoning, which originated as a public health tool, to regulate the roll-out by physically spacing out businesses and avoid clustering in any neighborhood. To ensure parity between industries and to avoid stigmatizing cannabis businesses, the hearing includes alcohol-related enterprises such as bars and liquor stores. The hearing is informational and meant to collect stakeholder opinions from entrepreneurs, health workers, residents and regulators.”

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