EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 4, 2014

Councilor's letter key to pot center license

Mayor refused to sign letter for medical marijuana clinic

By Shawn Regan

---- — HAVERHILL — “The City of Haverhill is neither in favor or opposed to the siting of a marijuana dispensary in the City of Haverhill.”

That declaration of neutrality in an application for a medical marijuana license by the nonprofit Healthy Pharms Inc. was a key factor in the state’s decision to give the group a provisional license to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Haverhill.

The words are from a letter written to the state by City Councilor Robert Scatamacchia when he was council president last year. Several councilors said they were not aware of the letter until recently and hadn’t seen it until a copy of Healthy Pharm’s application was provided to them by a reporter.

“That kind of letter should have been on the council’s agenda,” said Councilor William Macek, who added he has serious concerns about a medical marijuana dispensary on Hale Street, a busy section of the inner city.

Only applications with letters of either support or non-opposition received provisional licenses Friday from the state’s public health department. An application for a dispensary in Lawrence that included a letter of opposition from that city’s new mayor, Daniel Rivera, for instance, was rejected.

Mayor James Fiorentini said he was approached by a representative of Healthy Pharms and asked to sign a letter of non-opposition, but that he refused. Instead, the company got Scatamacchia to sign it.

In a phone interview yesterday, Scatamacchia said he signed the letter on behalf of the full council and that every councilor should have received a copy. Scatamacchia said he signed the letter, which is undated and is on official City of Haverhill stationary, when he was council president last year.

“I would never take a position as president that the other city councilors did not support or were not aware of,” he said. “It was not a unilateral letter by me. It was on behalf of the council.”

Council President John Michitson and Councilor Colin LePage said they were unaware of the letter until recently.

“We never voted or took a position on this,” Michitson said.

The center is planned for an old furniture building at 114 Hale St. The building is just north of downtown in an industrial area just outside Lafayette Square. The building is near the north end of Hale Street, around the corner from several homes.

While some of the 20 winning proposals for dispensaries in Massachusetts are to include various components of delivery, medical marijuana is to be grown, processed and dispensed at the Hale Street site. It was one of only two sites selected for a license in Essex County. The other one is in Salem.

The city as a whole voted in favor of legalizing medical marijuana, along with most other Massachusetts communities, in a statewide election in 2012. The city is currently under a City Council-imposed moratorium that prohibits a dispensary from opening here, while officials consider new zoning that would limit where one can be located. The moratorium expires Feb. 25, unless the council renews it.

In November, the council took up a proposal from the mayor to create a special zone on and around Hale Street for a medical marijuana dispensary. Only days earlier, the zone was to include the Ward Hill Business Park. But that location changed after a petition against it was submitted to the council with signatures from more than 100 people.

At the November meeting, residents from both Ward Hill and homes near Hale Street showed up to oppose both locations. Councilors said they had too little time to consider the new Hale Street proposal and voted to continue the city’s temporary ban on dispensaries.

In an interview yesterday, Fiorentini said that although he declined the request to sign a letter of non-opposition for Healthy Pharms, he does not see anything wrong with Scatamacchia signing it.

“The matter was before the City Council, so I thought they should be the one to write it,” Fiorentini said when asked why he declined to sign the letter. “I was surprised the letters carried so much weight with the state.”

In defending his decision to sign the letter, Scatamacchia reiterated several points he made in it. He said the matter of deciding where a dispensary will be allowed to open is pending before the council and that no decision on zoning has been reached.

“The council is evaluating what would be a proper zone for these dispensaries to be located,” reads Scatamacchia’s letter, in part. “The council is waiting to schedule hearings, after the hearings, the council will decide which location to allow a dispensary to apply for a permit. Any permit that might, or might not, be granted, would be decided by the City Council through a special permit process.”

Fiorentini said the state’s decision to award Healthy Pharms a provisional license does not take away any of the council’s authority to decide where a dispensary can be located.

“The council still has the authority to zone it where they want it,” the mayor said. ...”I don’t have a problem with medical marijuana dispensaries if they are strictly regulated, especially to relieve nausea for cancer patients.”

The CEO of Healthy Pharms is Nathaniel Averill, a former manager with Bristol-Myers Squibb. Healthy Pharms has a purchase and sale agreement on 114 Hale St. for $360,000 with Ronald Auclair.

Marijuana Dispensary Letter