This piece first appeared in Forbes.
In November of 2016 the residents of Massachusetts voted to legalize recreational marijuana. Nearly two years later, there’s still nowhere to buy it. A variety of regulatory hurdles still need to be cleared before the people of Massachusetts will be able to purchase marijuana legally, including state inspections of all licensed dispensaries. In addition to state barriers, local zoning boards are getting in the way, largely due to unfounded worries about where the dispensaries will set up shop.
Despite the November 2016 vote, actual marijuana sales only became legal in Massachusetts on July 1 of this year. Yet so far, the state’s Cannabis Control Commission has only granted one retail license, and it went to a dispensary that currently distributes medical marijuana.
The state’s slow progress is matched by some local governments. Some municipalities, such as the town of Boxborough, have temporary bans on recreational marijuana so they can fit dispensaries into their zoning laws. Any temporary bans were supposed to expire this December, but Massachusetts’s attorney general recently gave local governments permission to extend their bans until June of 2019.
So why the slow progress at the local level? Like other “undesirable” businesses such as bars, strip clubs, and tobacco shops, some residents in towns and cities across Massachusetts are worried that marijuana dispensaries will pop in places they don’t want them. Several residents in Boxborough and New Bedford are worried that dispensaries may locate near schools, playgrounds, senior centers, or places of worship. Locals also don’t want dispensaries in residential areas for fear that they will compromise the character of neighborhoods.
The state has already taken care of the school concern by making it illegal to locate a dispensary within 500 feet of a school, and local governments are working to alleviate the other worries. One proposal in New Bedford would only allow dispensaries in industrial zones.
While it makes perfect sense that people don’t want dispensaries near schools, fears of dispensaries locating there, or in other places people generally don’t want them, are largely overblown.
In his book Land Use Without Zoning, author Bernard Siegan compares famously un-zoned Houston to other cities such as Dallas and Chicago. The locations of businesses in all the cities are very similar, despite the fact that Houston doesn’t have any single-use zoning in place that says retail must go here, residential there, etc.
This might seem surprising, but as Siegan points out, it makes economic sense. There are powerful economic forces at work in cities, such as agglomeration economies, economies of scale, and the desire to maximize profit, and these forces have a big impact on where businesses locate.
Housing developers know that many people don’t want to live on noisy roads or near loud bars or gas stations, so they create buffers between retail and residential land uses. This would happen regardless of zoning because it’s in the profit-maximizing interest of the developer.
Alternatively, proprietors of stores, gas stations, and restaurants want their businesses to be in highly trafficked areas, which means they are willing to pay the most for locations along busy roads or in dense walkable areas with a lot of foot traffic. These types of businesses also benefit from being near one another—they can share parking lots, security costs, and a customer base—which incentivizes any new business to cluster with the old rather than go it alone in some residential neighborhood.
As for locating next to a school or park, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which locating in such a place would maximize a dispensary’s profit. Even if doing so were legal parents would be unhappy, and it’s unlikely that a dispensary owner would want to spend valuable time dealing with complaining parents on a regular basis. And many potential customers would feel uncomfortable purchasing marijuana under the watchful gazes of a schoolyard full of children, which would hurt revenue.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that every business will be on a busy road or every resident will live on a quite cul-de-sac. Some people want to live in mixed-use areas and developers build housing to accommodate them. Apartments typically serve this role and they act as a buffer between retail or industrial uses and neighborhoods of single-family homes. Meanwhile, residential neighborhoods often welcome a restaurant, pharmacy, or small store for convenience reasons.
In general, the desire to make money would prevent businesses such as marijuana dispensaries from locating near schools or in residential neighborhoods, and this would occur even without zoning. So while it’s understandable that many Massachusetts residents are concerned, they’re spending time and energy trying to prevent something that’s unlikely to occur in the first place.
Adam A. Millsap is the Assistant Director of the L. Charles Hilton Jr. Center at Florida State University and a Senior Affiliated Scholar at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
The featured picture is from Wikipedia.