AMESBURY — Amesbury has apparently emerged as a highly sought-after market within the state’s nascent medical marijuana industry, as a second organization has announced it wants to open a marijuana cultivation facility in town.
City officials have indicated that at least two groups have submitted Phase II medical marijuana applications to the state Department of Public Health, and if approved, they could potentially set up shop in Amesbury early next year.
One firm, Alternative Therapies Group Inc., based in Newburyport, was made public at a City Council meeting almost two weeks ago. It is reportedly interested in opening its facility on South Hunt Road. Now a second firm, Green Heart Health and Pharmaceuticals, said it has arranged a lease for a cultivation facility at 10 Industrial Way.
Both groups have said they don’t intend to dispense marijuana in Amesbury, saying they hope to open separate dispensaries elsewhere.
The property GHHP is looking at is in an industrial park sandwiched between Interstate 495 and Monroe Street near the Salisbury border.
GHHP executives recently sent a letter to members of the City Council introducing themselves while explaining what they hope to accomplish should their license application be approved by the state Department of Public Health. In the letter, president Steve DeAngelo and vice president Dan Houston told councilors that no marijuana would distributed in Amesbury and that the facility would be equipped with state-of-the-art security and guarded 24 hours a day.
The executives also emphasized GHHP’s partnership with Harborside Health Center, one of the country’s largest medical marijuana organizations, and said the facility would bring dozens of new jobs to Amesbury.
According to Councilor Donna McClure, GHHP had originally hoped to open a medical marijuana dispensary on Main Street in Amesbury, but canceled their lease after deciding that Amesbury wasn’t ready for a dispensary.
She added that based on her discussions with the two groups, her impression is that Amesbury’s low rent prices are attractive to the medical marijuana groups.
ATG and GHHP are among 100 organizations statewide competing for licenses to grow and distribute medical marijuana. The DPH can issue up to 35 licenses, with at least one but no more than five per county.
All of the Phase II applicants have already made it through the state’s Phase I process, and now a selection committee will evaluate and score the applications based on factors like the appropriateness of the site, geographical distribution of dispensaries, local support and the applicant’s ability to meet the overall health needs of registered patients while ensuring public safety.
The DPH is expected to announce the recipients of its medical marijuana licenses by Jan. 31. If either ATG or GHHP are granted licenses, they could immediately begin the process of setting up shop in Amesbury; and as it stands now, the city would be limited in its ability to dictate where in town they could operate.
Back in January, after the state’s new medical marijuana law first came into effect, city officials said they were going to take a wait and see approach before figuring out what kind of action they should take. Since then, several neighboring communities have discussed the issue at length and considered restricting where they can be located. Salisbury and Newbury recently voted to impose a temporary moratorium on medical marijuana facilities.
No such discussion took place in Amesbury, however, and the issue was largely ignored until after the Nov. 5 election, when council President Anne Ferguson proposed a resolution of non-opposition to ATG’s request to open a cultivation facility in town.
The request caught many of the councilors by surprise and sparked a renewed discussion over how to approach medical marijuana organizations interested in Amesbury.
Time may not be on the council’s side, however, as the City Council won’t be able to propose new business until January, when the new council is seated, and the earliest any vote on a special zoning amendment or a medical marijuana moratorium could take place is February.
One thing the council cannot do is ban dispensaries or cultivation facilities altogether. Several towns, including Wakefield, attempted to pass outright bans earlier this year, but the bans were struck down by the state attorney general’s office on the grounds that if one town could ban dispensaries, they all could, which would defeat the purpose of the law.
At this point, several of the councilors have indicated that they are opposed to dispensaries, but are more receptive to cultivation facilities.
Councilor Bob Lavoie argued that since cultivation facilities would basically be contained pharmaceutical manufacturing operations, they would need to be located in zoning districts that allow manufacturing, which would reduce the impact on residents.
He added that both interested organizations have indicated their willingness to compensate Amesbury in the form of either a host community agreement or a tax. He argued that since 69 percent of residents voted in favor of the law, it would be somewhat hypocritical for Amesbury to adopt a “not in my backyard” stance.
McClure, on the other hand, said she’s not sure at this point what level of financial benefit the facilities would bring to Amesbury, and would like to know what would happen if the businesses can’t afford constant security in the future.
She added that she’s not against the idea of marijuana facilities in Amesbury, but would prefer the city be better prepared before potentially opening the floodgates to a major unknown.
“While I am personally undecided on this issue, I think it’s important to establish the parameters for any business that is inherently controversial, legal or otherwise, and to gauge the community acceptance,” McClure said.