Not high on mixing medical marijuana and politics

Medical Marijuana Legislators Network
The medical marijuana allowed in Pennsylvania is limited to pills, oils, cremes, tinctures, liquids, and forms for vaporization.

A MEDICAL marijuana dispensary called TerraVida Holistic Centers is being proposed for my neighborhood, and I'm not pleased. Not only because the process allowed the community to be caught off guard, but also because the politics surrounding the venture are unseemly, at best.

That's because Chris Visco – one of the partners seeking to open the dispensary on Stenton Avenue near Allens Lane – managed political campaigns for State Rep. Chris Rabb and State Sen. Art Haywood. The proposed location for the dispensary is within each of their respective legislative districts. They are districts where I happen to live.

One could see how a constituent might wonder about a politically connected applicant seeking to open a controversial medical-marijuana dispensary in a neighborhood represented by the politicians for whom she worked.

In a neighborhood like East Mount Airy, where we're losing elected officials to corruption, fighting the creeping scourge of crime and combating an endless stream of unwanted facilities, our political representatives must serve the people. They must answer every question, allay every concern, and battle alongside their constituents.

Ninth District City Councilwoman Cherelle Parker – who I have called a neighbor for 12 years – has consistently done so. And last week, when I made the last-minute decision to attend a community forum convened by Parker, the issue was the proposed medical marijuana dispensary.

At that crowded community meeting, neighbors voiced their concerns about placing that facility in what is essentially a residential area. My concern was the appearance of cozy political relationships making the dispensary a foregone conclusion, so I asked Visco about her political ties to Rep. Chris Rabb.

Visco, whose partner in the medical-marijuana venture is Adina Birnbaum, acknowledged that she'd worked as Rabb's campaign manager. She also acknowledged that the proposed site for the facility was located in Rabb's district. I asked if Rabb was in a position to influence Visco's application, and she said no. I spoke with a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Health Department, who also said that the process for awarding permits is apolitical.

I guess we'll eventually see how true that is.

For his part, Rabb says there is nothing improper about his relationship with Visco, whom he says he hasn't spoken to in a year.

"I hired Chris Visco's political consulting firm," he said when I asked how they met. "I never called her my campaign manager . . . She was hired to work with me through the primary. Election night 2016 was her last official day on my campaign."

Haywood, on the other hand, said in an interview that he not only hired Visco as a political consultant and campaign manager in 2014, he also counts Visco among his friends.

"I met Chris in connection with the judicial campaign of Steve Tolliver - she helped Steve Tolliver win Common Pleas judge in Montgomery County," Haywood said. "I met her through his campaign. When I had a campaign in 2014 I asked her to join me, and she provided assistance as needed.

"For my campaign now for 2018 she provided some consulting, she does some of the social-media work, last year they helped . . . I'm trying to build campaign and I will probably ask her to help."

Haywood provided a letter of support to Visco when he learned she was in the process of applying for a permit to run a medical-marijuana dispensary. He says the letter was in support of Visco getting a permit, but he was not necessarily in support of that location.

"Whatever location ends up as the approved location is fine with me," Haywood told me. "My support letter was based on the site already having zoning approval. If the zoning application was in error or people have problem with the community I'm not going to support the location. But at the time I wrote the letter there was zoning approval. Maybe there should not have been zoning approval in the first place."

Maybe not. But this is about far more than just zoning. This is about a community.

In a majority black neighborhood with a smattering of white families, where retirees and young workers live side by side, where parents still home-school their children, most people just want to live in peace.

A medical-marijuana dispensary, where customers will buy with cash due to federal rules that classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, is an open invitation to criminals. And a loophole in the state legislation that could eventually allow for medical marijuana to be sold in leaf form rather than pills and creams is also a concern.

Councilwoman Cherelle Parker has appealed the use permit that was awarded to TerraVida by the Department of Licenses and Inspections last month. I need Rabb and Haywood to fight it alongside her.

Otherwise, they do not represent my community. They represent themselves.

Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM).

sj@solomonjones.com

@solomonjones1