NEW BEDFORD — Since the people of Massachusetts voted to legalize the use and sale of recreational marijuana in the Commonwealth, many have been waiting anxiously to find out where and when they can buy pot in their city or town. For New Bedford residents, the reality of one day walking down the street to buy a fresh bag of grass has inched even closer.

The New Bedford City Council unanimously voted on Thursday to adopt the zoning map for marijuana establishments in the city during its first of two readings on the issue.

The approved zoning ordinance will allow recreational pot shops and medical marijuana treatment facilities to do business in specialized areas within industrial zones, known as 'A, B, and C zones.'  Councillor At-Large Ian Abreu, also the Chairman of the Cannabis Committee, says that city government is “at the goal line at this point,” for completing legislation for pot shops in New Bedford.

In past meetings, some councilors voiced their concerns with what they feel are harsh restrictions on an industry new to the city.

The Committee on Ordinances voted unanimously to pass the ordinance to Thursday’s first of two readings by the full City Council back in July, when Ward Three Councillor Hugh Dunn called the ordinance “far from perfect”, saying that it could potentially delay the industry's start in New Bedford. Dunn’s argument was that the current zoning ordinance makes it too difficult for potential dispensaries that are considering opening up in the city, and furthermore, feeds the black market.

City Councillor At-Large Brian Gomes shares Dunn’s concerns, arguing that these now legal businesses are unfairly being forced to operate in industrial parks.

“I think it’s too restrictive. What the ordinance has done is basically put these marijuana institutions and retailers out in the industrial park. It’s a legal business and it should be able to be in areas that don’t affect the quality of life,” said Gomes. “I also have some concerns about the buffers that have been put in where churches are located that are no longer churches and some other business areas. We will address those issues before it comes to a final reading to see if it can be amended.”

Ward Six City Councillor Joe Lopes also argues that the current ordinance is restrictive to the New Bedford recreational marijuana industry, but explains that there’s plenty of room for those restrictions to be eased, drawing a comparison to how tattoo parlors in the city were zoned about a decade ago.

“The language that we passed to a second reading is a little restrictive, but it also allows the community, as this industry grows in the city, just as other industries have grown, to mitigate some of the restrictions that are in place right now, just like tattoo parlors,” Lopes explained.  “A lot of things were framed after what happened with the tattoo parlors. They were more restrictive in the beginning and over the last eight to ten years those restrictions have mitigated. I think this is another prime example of where we may be a little restrictive now, but it gives us the latitude to minimize those restrictions as we go forward and as the industry grows.”

With the ordinance passing through the first reading, it must be again approved in second reading by the City Council, scheduled for September 13.  After the second reading, the ordinance will have to be signed by Mayor Jon Mitchell before dispensaries can officially be permitted to operate.

The City of New Bedford has a moratorium on marijuana sales in place until September 30.

In another unanimous vote, the City Council passed a motion submitted by Councillor At-Large Brian Gomes, calling on Mayor Jon Mitchell and Police Chief Joe Cordeiro to increase the police presence in an area of the city that's been riddled with gun violence this year.

The motion further requests the New Bedford Police Department conduct a "clean sweep" of all areas plagued by gun violence and criminal activity, and to utilize state and federal agencies, if necessary.

Gomes' motion calls for increased police patrols and surveillance in the area of Cedar Street, Chancery Street, and Parker Street, a neighborhood that's seen 12 instances of gunfire at people or property in 2018. The motion intends that "a clear message be sent to criminals" that violence and criminal activity will not be tolerated in the city.

Earlier in the meeting, another successful motion was filed by Gomes, which requests the Committee on Appointments and Briefings to call and immediate public safety summit with politicians and law enforcement representatives from both the local and state levels.

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