Brian O'Neill: Bring on medical marijuana dispensaries (with adequate parking)
March 19, 2017 12:00 AM
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Someone is seeking a permit to open a medical marijuana dispensary around the corner from my house in Allegheny West, and we had neighborhood meeting about it.
Neighborhood meetings are generally your go-to place to hear worst-case scenarios no matter what the proposal. Throw in the word “marijuana” and now you’re really talking — and so is everyone else.
But the discussion turned out to be about as tame as the low- to no-buzz marijuana that soon will be dispensed in Pennsylvania to physician-vetted sufferers of cancer, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease and 14 other designated “serious medical conditions.” It can be dispensed only in pill, oil, liquid, cream, solution or a vaporization form that does not include dry leaves.
That’s right, kids, there will be no joints or pot brownies available. You’ll still have to look for those on the streets the way your grandparents did.
We nonetheless didn’t want this dispensary in our neighborhood. Because this operation, which plans no off-street parking for its customers, seemed destined to suck up every last parking spot on a two-lane street. You’d have to be high to believe such a place could open on Western Avenue and still leave parking for residents, much less the people who want to pull over to buy a slice of pizza, a plate of eggs or a sandwich, see their insurance agent or get a haircut.
That’s because high also describes the pent-up demand for medical marijuana. Yet only two “primary” dispensary licenses are to be issued in Allegheny County and its more than 1.2 million people. If even 5 percent of us have a genuine need for this treatment — and one accepted condition is as broad as “chronic or intractable pain” — more than 61,000 people would be making visits somewhere once a month.
It’s true that in the complex system the state is setting up, outlined below, the county could have five total dispensaries in the 2018 rollout. But there seems ample reason to believe, or at least worry, that even five won’t be enough.
The deadline for dispensary applications is Monday, and hundreds of applicants are expected to vie for the 27 licenses (each with three potential locations) that Pennsylvania intends to issue in the first round. Five of those permits will be issued in our Southwest region. That 11-county spread stretches from Beaver to Cambria County and down to the Mason-Dixon Line, taking in 2.7 million people.
Here’s how it works.
Allegheny County gets two of the five permits, and Butler, Washington and Westmoreland each get one. The twist is that every licensee can also have two other locations — with each location requiring a $30,000 permit fee — but each has to be in two other counties in the region.
For example, one of the licensees in Allegheny County can have another dispensary in Beaver and a third in Washington. Each of the three in Allegheny’s neighboring counties can also put one in Allegheny and one in any other regional county not their own.
At first glance, it seems like the kind of plan you’d come up in a board room with a bong on the big table. In its favor, though, one can’t possibly be stoned and understand it. Perhaps that’s the failsafe.
There’s a long application for dispensary permits that includes a lot of good questions, an initial nonrefundable fee of $5,000, those $30,000 location fees (refundable to those who don’t make the cut) and the need to show proof of $150,000 in capital.
Clearly, there’s big money in medical marijuana. What isn’t in the permit application is any requirement for big parking lots. The Pennsylvania Health Department says such requirements will be managed by the municipalities.
The Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment has taken the request for a dispensary at 906 Western Ave. under advisement. My neighborhood civic council voted overwhelmingly (I abstained) to advocate not approving any dispensary until the city has adopted zoning code provisions for this unlisted use.
Here’s hoping we have a better grasp of the demand before we decide where the dispensaries should go. Access to public transportation and parking will need to be part of the decision-making equation.
Tens of thousands of people could use this help to ease their pain and have been waiting a long time.
It would be more than a bit cruel if come 2018 they have to spend another day circling the block.
Brian O’Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947 or Twitter @brotheroneill
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