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For medical marijuana patients in the suburbs, Philadelphia's loss will be Malvern's gain

Only two medical marijuana dispensaries will open in Philadelphia when the program launches in early 2018.

A rendering of a TerraVida dispensary.
A rendering of a TerraVida dispensary.Read moreTerraVida

Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program will launch early next year, but Philadelphia — a city of more than 1.5 million people — is likely to host only two dispensaries.

Four storefronts initially were set to operate within the city limits when the state Department of Health awarded permits in June.

Two of the permit holders, however, ran into immediate opposition. Now one of those locations is entangled in a court battle and the other announced its intention on Friday to move to Chester County.

PharmaCann L.L.C. had designs on the site of a former ChiChi's Mexican Restaurant adjacent to the former Franklin Mills Mall in Northeast Philadelphia. The owners of the mall, Simon Property Group, are challenging the location in court.

TerraVida Holistic Centers had planned to occupy a former bank building in East Mount Airy. Neighbors, led by Councilwoman Cherelle L. Parker, challenged TerraVida's zoning by claiming the Stenton Ave. location was too close to an unlicensed child care facility. Rather than spend tens of thousands of dollars in a protracted legal battle, TerraVida asked the state for permission to relocate. By law, all dispensaries are required to be operational by New Years.

Chris Visco, TerraVida's president, said she spent months searching for a new city location.

"There was nowhere to go," Visco said. "We looked everywhere."

An ordinance, sponsored by Councilwoman Parker and adopted earlier this year, forbids dispensaries within 500 feet of a day-care center.

Because of the ordinance, "(t) here's not a single building that would meet approval in Mount Airy," Visco said. "We looked at Chestnut Hill, but none of the properties are zoned correctly."

Dispensaries must have a private, out-of-view access in the rear of the building. Visco said finding one is "virtually impossible" in Philadelphia. In addition, strip malls owned by out-of-state companies won't lease to dispensaries, she said.

Visco’s new location is slated for 249 Planebrook Road in Malvern, a former auto parts shop. TerraVida will operate two other suburban locations, one in the Abington Animal Hospital on Route 611 and another at a former computer consulting company on Sellersville’s Main Street.

In Philadelphia, dispensaries appear to be on schedule to open in Fishtown, on the 900 block of Frankford Avenue, and in Bustleton, on the 8900 block of Krewstown Road.

Dispensaries will sell oils, tinctures, pills, and lotions to patients with 17 qualifying conditions. Smokable materials will not be available or legal anywhere in the state.