Foes batter Philly marijuana dispensary plan

Updated with statement from Pa. Department of Health

Prospects for a medical marijuana dispensary in Northwest Philadelphia seemed to dim Tuesday as a crowd of about 250 neighborhood residents, many from eight East Mount Airy churches, packed a city hearing room intent on having the business’ zoning permit revoked.

In March, the TerraVida Holistic Center was granted a permit to operate a medical cannabis dispensary on the 8300 block of Stenton Avenue in East Mount Airy. In June, the state awarded TerraVida a highly coveted permit to sell cannabis-derived oils, tinctures, and lotions in the former bank building and at additional sites in Abington and Sellersville.

No plant material will be grown or sold at any Pennsylvania dispensary. The Stenton Avenue site is only one of four slated to open in Philadelphia early next year.

The neighbors are not against medical cannabis, said Councilwoman Cherelle L. Parker, who represents East Mount Airy. “We know medical marijuana will help many people in our community. But this is about land use. This is a bad location.”

Residents, many dressed in red in symbolic protest, punctuated the three-hour hearing with groans and shouts and intermittently waved placards and posters. “Good Stuff, Bad Location,” read one.

Many were emboldened when former Councilman Frank DiCicco, now chairman of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, quipped about the stronger-than-expected opposition.

“Sometimes, you might want to look for another place,” said DiCicco. He later continued the hearing until Sept. 19.

In an interview, TerraVida president Chris Visco said she had already spent $23,000 in application fees and other building costs, much of that withdrawn from her 401(k), and would have to pay the state an additional $30,000 if the permit is revoked.

“We didn’t realize we’d be received with such opposition,” Visco said.

S. David Fineman, the attorney for a coalition of groups opposing the site, said the location is plagued by several problems.

“Maybe the city made a mistake,” Fineman said.

The city should have blocked the dispensary because Kingdom Seeds operates a child-care center fewer than 500 feet away, he said. Though the state medical marijuana law requires dispensaries to be at least 1,000 feet from schools and day-care centers, the city was granted a waiver to reduce the distance.

Attorneys for TerraVida maintained that the child-care center issue was “irrelevant” because the city-issued license for Kingdom Seeds expired in February 2015 and has not been renewed.

In late July, Fineman sued the state Department of Health, demanding that it reveal how an anonymous group made its decisions on awarding permits.

On Tuesday, local residents not only objected to the proposed dispensary’s proximity to the child-care provider, many also complained that TerraVida’s owners had not given them adequate notice. Parker said she learned about the dispensary in a newspaper story. Several others echoed that, saying they, too, had felt disrespected.

“They had no regard for the neighborhood,” said Joan Blakney, who lives three blocks from the proposed site. “They didn’t ask the people.”

Blakney said that traffic along that stretch of Stenton already is too congested, and that there is not enough parking to accommodate a steady stream of medical marijuana patients.

“This should be at a place like the Cheltenham Mall or near Germantown Hospital,” she said. “There are so many other places.”

The state Department of Health issued this statement on Aug. 17:

“Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program is designed to ensure that patients with serious medical conditions have access to medication that can help relieve their symptoms. The role of the community is vital, and within the application process all applicants were required to submit evidence that they are or will be in compliance with the municipality’s zoning requirements. All entities that were awarded permits provided this evidence.

“It’s important that we continue to work together to ensure that patients who are waiting for medication get the help they need.”