Wellesley watches as neighboring community pot shops bloom

Business has remained high at Brookline’s NETA recreational and medical marijuana dispensary since it debuted in March, less than 9 miles from the Wellesley line. Newton’s Garden Remedies, another dispensary for the masses, opened on May 22nd and is just 4 miles away. Wellesley’s not quite at the point, like with liquor and beer/wine stores, of being bordered by such facilities. But with a handful of dispensaries on the way to Framingham and Natick, can Wellesley be far behind?

Maybe yes.

In March of 2017 at the annual Town Meeting, town representatives voted to implement a temporary moratorium, by a two-thirds vote from the representatives, on the use and sale of marijuana in Wellesley after the state legalized recreational use of marijuana on Dec. 15, 2016. According to Section XXIIE in the town bylaws, the legalization of marijuana “raises novel and complex legal, planning, and public safety issues.” The temporary moratorium lasted until Dec. 28, 2018, and gave the town the time it needed to plan on whether to amend zoning laws to allow for the sale and purchase of medical and/or recreational marijuana.

But Wellesley did not need until December. On March 15, 2018,  Town Meeting approved a motion to pass Article 28, banning any recreational dispensaries from opening in Wellesley. The state’s General Court ruled in 2017 that communities in Massachusetts can ban recreational marijuana establishments if their voters had opposed the legalization of marijuana, and that’s exactly what 58.3% of Wellesley voters did in 2016. Communities could not, however, ban medical dispensaries, nor could they prohibit the possession or use of marijuana.  

Wellesley Chief of Police Jack Pilecki is documented in writing on Article 28 as supporting the prohibition, along with the Board of Health and the Planning Board. His support remains unwavering today.

“I do not see legalized marijuana in Wellesley coming anytime soon,” Pilecki says. “Again, I think the voters understand the problems with [marijuana] vastly outweigh the benefits.”

Chief Pilecki expressed concerns that both recreational and medical marijuana could bring problems to Wellesley, such as driving under the influence and underage use. “I don’t feel it is necessary to open dispensaries in Wellesley given the close proximity of other dispensaries,” he says.

Stephanie Hawkinson, communications manager at Wellesley Town Hall, says Wellesley can sometimes be slow to change and that every decision made during Town Meetings are thoroughly thought out.

“Wellesley is watching other communities [that have opened dispensaries] to see what happens,” Hawkinson says. “While I would never rule it out, it isn’t likely,” she says, of dispensaries getting the OK in Wellesley.

Paying a visit to Brookline’s pot shop

As Wellesley watches from a distance, I decided to check out NETA in Brookline and see what all the fuss is about. It was a hot Sunday afternoon, yet the line snaked outside with people standing patiently.

As I arrived, two police officers were standing at the entrance chatting casually. They asked me whether I had pre-ordered online or not, I answered no, and they directed me down the parking lot to the end of the longer line.

Inside NETA. Photo by Lara Smith

The woman waiting in front of me, Erin Jenkins from Jamaica Plain, made a joke about the heat and we got to talking. I asked her what she thought of the new recreational dispensaries, as she said she has been using marijuana for a long time. She told me that the selection they provide is good, and the staff inside offers a lot of help and guidance if customers don’t know exactly what they are looking for. Jenkins told me marijuana is still cheaper to buy illegally but the experience at a dispensary is much nicer.

When I told her about the story I was writing, specifically about dispensaries and Wellesley, she chuckled. “Oh yeah, no way one will open up in Wellesley. Maybe in neighboring towns, sure, but not in Wellesley.”

In the line, I meet people from Tennessee, in town for Boston Calling, as well as a young man from New Hampshire and another from New Jersey. There was a mix of out-of -towners and locals all patiently waiting in the hot Brookline sun. Many were first-time customers, while others standing in the pre-order line were already regulars.

Everyone was friendly and open to talking. Even the employees at the door checking IDs were far from the rude and intimidating bouncers in Boston.

Once inside, I asked one of the cashiers if she had any training before working at NETA. She told me that all employees go through a program to be well informed on all the products and capable of giving customers correct advice.

As I was leaving I noticed that NETA stands right next to a pre-school. At first, that took me by surprise, but after experiencing the shop for myself, I’m not sure it’s a big deal. Still, hard to imagine Wellesley letting that fly.

Will history sort of repeat itself?

My experience at NETA, and the conversations with Chief Pilecki and Hawkinson, raise the question of whether the purchase of marijuana in Wellesley will play out similarly to that of alcohol. Before 2011, the only alcohol sold in Wellesley was in restaurants with over 100 seats, thus not many places.

In March 2012, the town voted and approved the sale of beer and wine in a few grocery stores. Before this, Wellesley’s “dryness” forced residents in search of booze to cross the border — barely — to buy alcohol.   

The loosening of Wellesley’s alcohol sales rules took place after citizens went to the Board of Selectmen to seek support in bringing the proposed changes to Town Meeting.

Hawkinson notes that the situation could be similar for marijuana if citizens want to push for recreational dispensaries in town. If 10 or more registered voters bring 100 Wellesley citizen signatures to the town clerk they can lawfully request a Special Town Meeting and a vote to amend a Wellesley bylaw, such as Article 28.

Whether a citizens petition will result in dispensaries coming to Wellesley rather than just doing business in bordering communities remains up in the air for now.

Yellow Stars Mark Garden Remedies and NETA locations in relation to Wellesley.