Philly councilmember pushing to spread out marijuana dispensaries

The sales floor of Beyond/Hello, Center City Philadelphia's first medical marijuana dispensary is seen, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

The sales floor of Beyond/Hello, Center City Philadelphia's first medical marijuana dispensary is seen, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

Neighborhood groups in Philadelphia are wary of the nascent marijuana industry budding in their backyards.

That’s why Councilmember Mark Squilla introduced legislation to block marijuana dispensaries in Philadelphia from opening in close proximity to each other.

“A lot of the dispensaries are operating real close to each other, so we figured if we put them more than 500 feet from an existing dispensary we could spread them throughout the city and not just have them in one location,” said Squilla, who says he is a supporter of medical marijuana.

Philadelphia City Council member Mark Squilla. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The bill is a reaction to a complaint by the Washington Square West civic association, which already has two dispensaries in its boundaries and could soon see a third.

The neighborhood group wants legislative protection in place because they fear that far more dispensaries could come to the city than are currently permitted — if full-scale legalization ever comes to Pennsylvania, as it’s now supported by Gov. Tom Wolf.

“We are seeing a high density of these in Washington Square West,” said Jonathan Broh, head of the group’s zoning committee. “The tricky thing with the dispensaries is that of course there’s a legitimate use for them. But it sounds like getting a medical marijuana card isn’t so challenging. And seemingly a lot of them are setting themselves up for the supply chain, if marijuana becomes legal.”

Squilla is not the first councilmember to propose restrictions on the burgeoning medical marijuana industry.

In 2017, Councilmember Cherelle Parker led West Oak Lane residents to defeat an effort to establish a medical marijuana dispensary called TerraVida Holistic Centers. She even paid for buses to drive supporters to the Zoning Board of Adjustment hearings.

The next year, Councilmember Curtis Jones introduced legislation that requires any business seeking a zoning permit for a medical marijuana dispensary to notify the district council member, the local registered community groups, and properties that neighbor the site.

Philadelphia Councilman Curtis Jones has introduced a bill that would regulate medical marijuana dispensaries in his district — including the Overbrook Farm and Roxborough neighborhoods — as well as across the city. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Jones’ bill, which is now law, also banned any more dispensaries from being established in eight commercial corridors in his district, explaining that “NIMBY does apply sometimes.”

Squilla dismissed a comparison of the two pieces of legislation.

“We’re not doing that,” said Squilla. “It’s not that we aren’t in favor of them. As a city marijuana dispensaries for medical purposes is something that’s needed and every community should have access to it. They just shouldn’t all be in one place.”

Marijuana industry advocates say that dispensaries are generally nicely appointed and highly regulated. They argue these businesses don’t cause problems in neighborhoods that host them and that legislation like Squilla’s is probably unnecessary.

But they also say the industry is so new and under-regulated that a checkerboard of such laws have been instituted in localities across the state.

“The one concern I have with a new industry like this, there is an opportunity for job creation and limiting the growth of the industry could stymie that job creation,” said Krishna Narine, a partner with the firm Lauletta Birnbaum, which represents industry applicants. “And Philadelphia could always use more jobs.”

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