By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — The city has missed its chance to host one of the first medical marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts, and now risks seeing the state give hardship licenses to hundreds of residents who would be allowed to grow and use pot in their homes.
That’s according to a lawyer representing a nonprofit organization that wanted to open a medical marijuana dispensary in a building on Hale Street near the city’s Acre neighborhood.
A former spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health who runs a public relations firm that markets medical marijuana businesses agreed with the lawyer’s opinion.
The City Council was poised last Tuesday night to create a special zone limiting medical marijuana facilities in Haverhill to the Hale Street industrial area, just outside Lafayette Square.
The committee of city officials developing the zoning proposal also considered allowing marijuana facilities in the Ward Hill Business Park in the city’s Bradford section. However, the committee eliminated that Ward Hill area just prior to Tuesday’s council meeting due to neighborhood opposition and concerns from city officials about a business opening a medical marijuana plant in a high-profile building in the park such as the Global Ware Solutions building. That building at 200 Ward Hill Ave. is vacant and was also being eyed as a possible medical marijuana site.
At Tuesday’s public hearing on the zoning proposal, the council voted to postpone its consideration of the measure and to continue the city’s temporary ban on the facilities until at least Feb. 25. The delay is designed to give councilors more time to consider where they should be located and residents a chance to give their opinions. Mayor James Fiorentini’s committee developing the zoning measure got its latest proposal to councilors only a day or so before they were asked to approve it.
Councilor Colin LePage pushed to have the moratorium prohibiting the centers extended to next summer, but he was overruled by other councilors worried that state officials would have a negative view of such a lengthy delay. LePage said at least one other Massachusetts community has extended its moratorium to June.
City Solicitor William Cox told councilors that the point of the moratoriums is to allow communities time to establish regulations, but they aren’t supposed to be used to delay or stop the facilities.
Attorney Valerio Romano of Boston said his client had an agreement to lease a building on Hale Street for a medical marijuana operation. Due to the council’s inaction on the zoning measure, however, Romano said Haverhill would miss last week’s state deadline for deciding which applications for medical marijuana licenses should go forward. Romano said his client and others eyeing Haverhill will now turn their attention to communities that have established regulations for the centers.
While that might seem like good news for people who oppose the centers here, Romano said it means people who apply for hardship licenses to grow medical marijuana in their Haverhill homes will have strong cases.
“Haverhill is a big city and, in my opinion, by this time next year you are going to see hundreds of people with hardship licenses growing marijuana in their basements,” Romano said in an interview after Tuesday’s hearing.
Donna Rheaume, a former spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health and founder of the Medical Marijuana Public Relations firm, agreed with Romano’s prediction. Rheaume said she expects it will be several years before the state considers allowing more dispensary licenses after the 35 that are expected to be handed out in the current round.
Neither Fiorentini nor Cox returned messages seeking their comments for this story. David Van Dam, Fiorentini’s aide, said the mayor did his part by forming a committee to make zoning recommendations, and that the matter is now in the hands of the City Council.
The law legalizing medical marijuana, which was approved by 63 percent of the state’s voters last year, provides for 35 nonprofit medical marijuana treatment centers throughout the state, with no more than five in each county. The centers may grow, process and provide marijuana to patients who have a prescription from a doctor.
In Haverhill, 60 percent of voters supported the measure, which also removed criminal and civil penalties for medical marijuana use for people with certain medical conditions.
According to a list of companies released yesterday by the state Department of Public Health, one applicant looking to place a center in Haverhill was selected to go on to the state’s second phase of reviews. The release identified that applicant as Healthy Pharms Inc. It is one of seven nonprofit organizations selected to move on to phase two in Essex County.
The release also said one applicant for Lawrence reached phase two — BeWell Organic Medicine Inc.
The release said that overall, 100 applicants statewide were selected to go on to the phase-two review. State health officials said the review will be completed early next year and will be based on the appropriateness of the site, centers not being located too close to each other, local support for the proposal, and its ability to meet health needs of patients. The officials said Jan. 31 is the target date for choosing which companies can open medical marijuana centers.
It is unclear whether the lawyer who met with the council last week represents Healthy Pharms Inc. The lawyer, Romano, said he decided not to reveal the identity of his client after he was verbally blasted by Councilor William Macek at Tuesday’s hearing. Macek said he was offended by Romano for advising councilors that the city would be inundated with residents growing marijuana in their homes if the council did not approve the Hale Street zoning proposal that night.
Macek said he felt Romano was threatening the council.
“You don’t come to Haverhill and threaten the City Council because we don’t like to be threatened,” Macek told Romano at the hearing.
Following Tuesday’s hearing, Romano told The Eagle-Tribune that it was not his intention to threaten councilors or anyone else.
“I know the state regulations like the back of my hand,” Romano said. “I was just trying to explain to them what is going to be the likely result of not passing the zoning.”
Earlier this year, state Attorney General Martha Coakley ruled communities cannot prohibit dispensaries from opening within their borders, but can regulate the specific locations where they are allowed.
In recent months, the Haverhill council has passed a series of moratoriums on marijuana centers, while officials develop a proposal that would limit them to specific areas of the city. Councilors extended the previous moratorium that expired Tuesday to Feb. 25.
If and when the city adopts zoning and other regulations for the centers, proposals from specific applicants will require a special permit from the council to go forward, Haverhill Economic Development Director William Pillsbury said. If the city does not enact zoning for a facility soon, Pillsbury said it risks the possibility the state will allow one anywhere a credible applicant wants to open one.