Philadelphia City Council members Cherelle Parker and Cindy Bass are threatening to run a newly permitted medical cannabis oil dispensary out of East Mount Airy in a move that could throw a wrench into Pennsylvania's entire program.
The sudden opposition group includes State Rep. Chris Rabb, State Sen. Art Haywood, and broadcaster and Philly.com contributor Solomon Jones, all backed by a cadre of neighborhood residents.
Holding classic "Not In My Backyard"-themed signs at City Hall last week, the influential crew pushed for a critical land-use hearing set for Sept. 19. They are openly calling on the Pennsylvania Department of Health to revoke the permit for the operator, TerraVida. That means the company's two other dispensary locations are under threat.
Local patients have been horrified at the rhetoric used in the kerfuffle. Most of the opposition group's remarks about retail medical marijuana sales amount to baseless accusations and unjustified stereotyping:
Hordes of eager robbers will pounce on all-cash dispensaries.
Selling THC and CBD vape pen cartridges with a RiteAid two blocks away will shock children and senior citizens.
Seriously ill patients will snarl traffic and take up valuable parking spaces.
Of course, we've heard all of this before from folks like State Rep. Matthew Baker (R., Tioga), who spent years trying to persuade their fellow legislators that marijuana was more dangerous than plutonium. Parker and Bass missed out on the arguments that (thankfully) won in Harrisburg:
In 2009 former Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck famously (among drug policy wonks) said, "Banks are more likely to get robbed than medical marijuana dispensaries."
A 2011 study by UCLA found that more than 1,000 semi-regulated medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles were not associated with an increased density of violent crime or property crime in their neighborhoods.
A June 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review reviewed a massive set of data addressing dispensaries in "mixed-use" areas. Marijuana dispensaries and restaurants appear to help keep crime down when they are open for business.
Cannabis cultivation, processing, laboratory testing and retail stores have been operating for decades across America's urban environments. Every study to gauge their impact finds that most are positive additions.
Several studies can also give some assurance regarding the clientele. Medical marijuana patients tend to be over 40, have jobs, and are looking to stop using prescription pain medication. Hardly undesirable. They might even stop and shop. Yikes.
The politicians are most unhappy about TerraVida's relationship with the neighborhood and about its offices. Handshake deals securing the accepted level of "community support" required for permit applications are common among cannabis operators with experience in other states.
After facilities were licensed in Massachusetts in 2014, it was revealed that towns had secured hundreds of thousands of dollars (sometimes annual payments in perpetuity) from medical cannabis applicants in exchange for letters of approval and helpful zoning.
PurePenn broke ground for one of the 12 growing/processing sites in McKeesport a few weeks ago. During the ceremony, a $50,000 check to a local nonprofit was presented. Not surprisingly, PurePenn hasn't experienced any backlash.
Many permit holders in Pennsylvania are stacked with longtime political operatives who may have helped navigate these deals. That several reporters to ask whether Parker's motives were more politics than policy. The president of TerraVida, Chris Visco, is a former campaign manager for Parker's allies and opponents.
Parker, Bass, Haywood, and Raab must know that removing or relocating the dispensary is impractical under the new law. That's on purpose.
Cities in other states passed outright bans on medical marijuana operations. Knowing this, Pennsylvania lawmakers built in language that municipalities can't kick out permit holders just because they don't like marijuana.
Their bombastic dispute also ignores the Philadelphia Planning Commission's pragmatic zoning rules. TerraVida simply complied. Now, it seems, Philly is punishing a group that tried to abide by all the onerous regulations, sending a bad message to a new industry.
Flaws in the medical marijuana permit awarding process in Maryland and Florida resulted in both states' putting the brakes on their entire implementation process. Everyone stopped while court cases went forward. The same could happen in Pennsylvania if the Parker/Bass crew and TerraVida don't unlock their horns.
It's also disappointing to watch such zeal among City Council opposing this single business while far more serious issues with cannabis remain unaddressed. Here are a few:
Philly decriminalized marijuana possession, but there are still about 700 people getting put into handcuffs instead of getting tickets. Most of them are young black men. This should stop. Now.
Philadelphia is wasting more than 20 percent of its total addiction-services budget on mandatory drug treatment for those who fail THC urine tests. We could treat thousands of more people for heroin — without spending a single additional tax dollar — if we fixed our approach to cannabis for people on pretrial, probation, or parole.
Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) has introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, which would end federal prohibition. A major component of the bill envisions minority business owners and cannabis operations flourishing in neighborhoods just like Mount Airy. The bill deserves support and planning.
We should be looking forward to a day when thousands of marijuana retail stores contribute to Philadelphia's economy and society. Instead, leaders like Cherelle Parker and Cindy Bass are stuck in reverse. Hopefully, we can set internal politics aside and start working toward a brighter and much greener future.