Council eases on distance restrictions for medical marijuana dispensaries

CountyCouncil2017UPPER MARLBORO – Medical marijuana dispensary owners are still facing challenges when it comes to finding somewhere to conduct business after the Prince George’s County Council passed a bill outlining restrictions where they could operate last year.

A new council bill may provide a solution.

By a vote of 5-3, the county council passed a bill that would establish that medical marijuana dispensaries need to be a minimum distance of 500 feet from schools, daycares, before and after-school programs and parks, and 300 feet from certain residential zones.

The council previously designated in June 2016 that dispensaries needed to be a minimum 500 feet away from parks, schools and residential zones.

Chairman Derrick Davis and Councilmembers Mel Franklin, Andrea Harrison, Mary Lehman and Deni Taveras voted for the bill, while Councilmembers Karen Toles, Todd Turner and Obie Patterson voted against. Vice-Chair Danielle Glaros was not present for the vote.

Davis and Taveras sponsored the bill.

Those who voted in favor of the measure cited the difficulties dispensaries currently have locating suitable locations where they can operate. The councilmembers who opposed it voiced safety concerns and their belief that houses of worship should have an exemption.

Nearly 20 people spoke during the public hearing prior to the council’s discussion and vote.

Marcus McCay, owner of Metropolitan Medicinal Dispensary, said he would benefit from the new bill, because under the current regulations he has had difficulty finding a place to set up his business.

“We will do everything we can to fit within the fabric of the community that we are serving,” McCay said. “It’s not our intent to be in anyone’s backyard. But we just would like to have a place where we can operate. We’ve incurred great expense in pursuing this, and if there are no changes to the law, we run a real risk of losing that.”

Approximately 100 prospective dispensaries have preliminary licenses to operate in the county.

Several speakers expressed distress at the possibility of a dispensary being near their churches.

“For what or for whom do we gain if we further have to degrade and relinquish the integrity and the morality of our individual communities?” said Nathaniel Bryant, a member of the Apple Grove Squire Woods Citizen Association. “What message do we send within this region if we mitigate existing law to invade the space of houses of worship to allow the sale of cannabis?”

Councilmembers addressed the proximity of dispensaries to places of worship during their discussion.

Toles asked whether it would be possible to include as part of the amendment restrictions on dispensaries next to churches. After the legal counsel said that would require a substantive amendment, Toles said she would not make the motion because she did not believe it would pass.

Patterson said he also thought faith communities should be exempted from having dispensaries near them. However, Taveras said she had previously considered adding such an exemption in the amendment, though she later changed her mind.

“There simply are just so many churches in the county that it just became so restrictive that we couldn’t even figure out where these facilities would go, because there were so many churches in the way,” she said. “It became prohibitive.”

Franklin suggested a temporary fix for churches concerned about the issue.

“I would encourage you, if you are a church or other institution, as soon as you can, get a summer day camp installed immediately,” he said. “Because until we can address that issue next year, I think that’s your shortest-term way of addressing the issue if you have any concern about the proximity of a dispensary to your establishment.”

Lehman said she did not believe people need to be wary of dispensaries.

“People are talking as if they’re going to be criminal enterprises. They are not,” she said. “I don’t see that there’s going to be a huge difference, even if you’re the most fearful person thinking the worst case scenario that this is going to bring terrible activity – which I don’t believe for a minute – I don’t see a huge difference between 500 feet and 300 feet (in certain residential zones).”

Other councilmembers said although the bill addresses some of their concerns, others remain unanswered.

“There are so many other components that go along with this whole thing,” Patterson said. “I don’t think we even got to the point of looking at safety. We haven’t gotten to the point of looking at what the environment will look like.”

Turner said one of the problems dispensaries faced when looking for a business location was that some landlords do not want to rent to them. He believes this bill will not solve that particular hurdle.

“One of the concerns I’ve had with this particular legislation is whether or not the factual basis was for us trying to reduce the amount of distance between these uses and particular other uses,” Turner said. “And I have to say I have not heard enough information for me even with the amendment – which I think addresses some of those concerns – for me to support this legislation.”

Taveras said lowering the minimum distance in residential zones to 300 feet is important to ensuring dispensaries have somewhere to operate.

“The reality is we do have to place these facilities all across our county, and the reality is we have very dense areas,” she said.

She also responded to suggestions that the dispensaries be relegated to industrial zones.

“That’s what we did with adult stores, basically put them in industrial zones, scary places, behind-the-scenes,” Taveras said. “Places nobody would want to be in, and that’s concerning, because that’s not where we want to send our family members to in order to get medicine.”

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