An Annapolis alderwoman whose district abuts the site of what could become Anne Arundel County’s first medical marijuana dispensary objected to the proposal Thursday on behalf of what she said are more than a thousand constituents.
But there may not be any legal recourse for residents unhappy with the placement of a 11,596-square-foot dispensary proposed on West Street under the county’s regulations for medical cannabis operations, which are some of the strictest in the state.
Alderwoman Rhonda Pindell Charles, D-Ward 3, presented opposition letters from the Greater Parole Community Association and a coalition of Ward 3 pastors at a Thursday hearing on the dispensary application.
“The people who live in the community are the ones that will be impacted by whatever is there,” Pindell Charles said. “We’re saying this isn’t an appropriate location.”
The community association represents more than 400 residents and the pastors minister to more than 900 congregants, she added.
Representatives of Advanced Alternative Therapies LLC, the applicant, insist the dispensary will have a lesser impact than the current tenants of 2029 West St., a tattoo parlor and Papa John’s Pizza shop.
“This is not ‘let’s go to the bar at 7:30’ — this is treatment of cannabis for medical conditions that you cannot buy without a prescription,” said Jerome Feldman, an attorney for Advanced Alternative Therapies.
Medical cannabis dispensaries are highly regulated under state and county law.
Only two dispensaries are allowed in each of Maryland’s 47 senatorial districts and only those with a prescription will be allowed to browse and buy. Dispensary employees and volunteers will have to pass a background check.
Dispensaries are considered permitted uses within commercial and industrial zones in Anne Arundel, but they must meet certain conditions under the special exception process.
The county’s zoning law prohibits two dispensaries from being located within a mile of each other. The stores are not allowed to host a physician to write prescriptions on-site and they must be accessible to a high-traffic arterial road and post “No Loitering” signs on their premises.
The proposed dispensary building is located in Anne Arundel County, right on the county/city line. The City of Annapolis does not have any of its own particular restrictions on dispensaries, according to a spokeswoman.
Rick Ruhf, an architect whose firm designed the proposed dispensary, said the shop’s entrance area would include a receptionist’s desk and some displays of smoking accessories. The marijuana would be sold in a secured back room only accessible by customers with special identification cards, and storage would be in another room monitored by cameras, motion sensors and lights.
Though the dispensary would occupy the existing West Street building, plans show it will be extensively renovated with floor-to-ceiling windows and modern wood finishings. Ruhf said the design is an effort to “destigmatize the building.”
Local medical marijuana advocates shared stories of how the plant has improved lives during the two-and-half-hour hearing with Douglas Clark Hollmann, the Anne Arundel administrative hearing officer.
Amy Mellen, who moved to Waldorf from Oregon six months ago, said she lost a decade of her life to addiction after a serious car accident left her hooked on painkillers.
She resolved to look into medical cannabis, which is legal in Oregon, after pills made her black out while driving.
Three months after she started using cannabis oil, Mellen quit painkillers.
“This plant has given me my life back,” she said.
Gail Rand, an advocate for medical cannabis whose son suffers from seizures, and former Anne Arundel Sheriff George Johnson also testified in support of the application. The two are on the team of Forward Gro LLC, a medical cannabis growing company that has plans to open in Lothian.
Pindell Charles said she did not dispute that there might be a public need for medical cannabis. But she said she and her constituents disagree that West Street is the right location.
The proposed dispensary is about 600 feet away from The Capital‘s former building, where a Monarch charter school is opening in September. It’s also near a methadone clinic and the Light House homeless shelter.
Pindell Charles said those latter two organizations do good work, but “I think for our community we’ve endured enough.”
She also worried about traffic issues as customers leave the shopping center, where she said there is already a “dangerous traffic situation.”
Annapolis Mayor Mike Pantelides, who did not attend the hearing, echoed Pindell Charles’ concerns.
While “I think people should be able to get the medicine they need in the areas they live … I don’t like the location of it,” said Pantelides, a Republican. Both he and Pindell Charles said they would prefer to see the dispensary located closer to Anne Arundel Medical Center.
Laurence Knighton, who owns the surrounding West Street shopping center, also testified against the application.
He said he has been trying to buy the Papa John’s building for the past 25 years, but hasn’t had any luck. He’s concerned that adding a dispensary to the area could contribute to the shopping center’s issues with loitering and drug dealing.
“The thing that I am afraid of is that some people will get prescriptions and use it and sell it there,” he said.
Feldman pushed back on those concerns, noting that state law limits the amount of medical cannabis an individual can be prescribed every 30 days.
“It won’t be enough to buy to resell,” he said.
As for worries about traffic, engineer Wayne Newton said data for a comparable dispensary in Las Vegas show that traffic flow would be reduced compared to the amount the existing pizza parlor generates.
While county law restricts dispensaries north of Route 50 and east of the South River from being located within 1,000 feet of a school or dwelling, the West Street site is outside of those boundaries.
Feldman said the distance restrictions would be hard to meet in the dense Annapolis area. City code does not have such limitations on businesses within its borders.
“In the city of Annapolis, I can have a liquor store wedged in between a school, church and playground,” he said. “You want to impose a requirement that you don’t impose upon others.”
He added, “I could put a pharmacy there and dispense drugs that are much more serious and dangerous.”
Ray Sears, who owns the Papa John’s restaurant, was neither for nor against the application. But he said he hadn’t been informed that his business would need to leave to make room for the dispensary.
“All indications I was given were that they were going to be in the tattoo shop area,” he said. “I think I’ve been hoodwinked a bit.”
Hollmann said he will issue a decision on the dispensary application within 30 days.
Reporter Chase Cook contributed to this story.