, Newburyport, MA

December 13, 2013

Pot farm seeks local support

By Mac Cerullo
Staff Writer

---- — AMESBURY — Faced with mounting opposition from city officials and local residents, a Newburyport-based medical marijuana company seeking to move into Amesbury is speaking out in hopes of clearing up some of the negative perceptions that have been circulating around town.

Alternative Therapies Group, Inc., one of two companies seeking licenses to open medical marijuana cultivation facilities in town, posted an open letter to the people of Amesbury on its website this week to lay out its intentions and ask supportive residents to contact their city councilors.

ATG’s plan to build a marijuana growing facility in Amesbury has become a hot political issue. Last month the majority of city councilors rejected an effort by Council President Anne Ferguson and Councilor Robert Lavoie to endorse a letter to the state stating the city had no opposition to the plan. Days later, outgoing Mayor Thatcher Kezer filed his own letter stating no opposition, without informing councilors. That move drew some criticism from councilors who had voted against Ferguson’s letter.

On its webpage, ATG reiterated its position that if it receives a medical marijuana license from the state Department of Public Health next year, its facility in Amesbury will be used only for cultivation and processing and will comply with all regulations laid out by the state and local authorities. It plans to open a sales location in Salem.

The letter also addresses the proposed moratorium on medical marijuana development, which is expected to be voted on by the City Council before the end of the year, and if approved, would halt any medical marijuana development for three months.

“Neither ATG nor anyone else is proposing to dispense medical marijuana in Amesbury,” the letter reads. “Amesbury’s current zoning laws have adequately provided regulations for siting of light manufacturing and agricultural uses for many years. Cultivating and processing of medical marijuana fit appropriately within these current regulations.”

Chris Edwards, who heads the Newburyport-based nonprofit, expanded on that by saying that even though the DPH only issues one license — Registered Marijuana Dispensary licenses — the applicants have to provide a specific address for where they’re going to dispense, process and cultivate their product.

If ATG were awarded a license and later decided they wanted to stop dispensing in Salem and consolidate their operations in Amesbury, they wouldn’t be allowed to just start using their cultivation facility to dispense without first going through a lengthy public process, he said.

“There is a differentiation as far as the facility; ATG and all other applicants had to specify a specific address for dispensing, processing and cultivation,” Edwards said. “It’s all one license, and our application is to cultivate and process in one facility in Amesbury and dispense from another, which happens to be in Salem.”

He added that considering how the state is only issuing 35 licenses for the entire state, it would make no sense to open a dispensary in Amesbury from a geographic perspective.

“The DPH wants to evenly distribute the licenses where the people are,” Edwards said. “So being a border town, it doesn’t make sense to put a dispensary in Amesbury. They need to be put in accessible places, and that’s not going to change unless the state boundaries change.”

Edwards said he understands and even supports the idea of imposing a temporary moratorium on dispensaries, but imposing a moratorium on cultivation facilities as well could potentially inhibit his organization’s ability to comply with strict state timelines and possibly force the group to look elsewhere to open its facility.

“If the moratorium does go through, it will prevent ATG and the other applicant from meeting a timeline that’s acceptable to DPH,” Edwards said. “If that happens, we’ll both have to consider locating to another community, and our proposal goes away.”

That probably sounds great for opponents of medical marijuana development in Amesbury, who fear that the industry will have a harmful impact on the community and potentially create a public safety hazard, but Edwards stressed that the company is run by experts who have no criminal record, and he is confident the business would have a positive economic impact on the city.

By setting up shop in Amesbury, he argued that the company would fill up vacant warehouse space, create new jobs and revenue, provide $50,000 to the city annually through a Community Host Agreement and contract out thousands of dollars more in construction, plumbing, electrical and HVAC contracts, with preference being given to qualified local vendors.

The facility would also include security systems, and extensive measures would be taken to ensure that the building and its product is secure. He added that the marijuana grown at the facility would be bred specifically for medicinal use, and it would be a strain that recreational users probably wouldn’t find very appealing.

“The psychoactive effect of these strains is minimal, and it allows people to function and go on with their lives,” Edwards said. “The manner of consumption is very different. A lot of people think this is about smoking joints, when actually vaporizing is the preferred method of ingestion. No smoke is generated, so it’s a much cleaner and healthier method of ingesting the medicine.”

Mayor-elect Ken Gray said that based on his conversations with Edwards and others associated with ATG, the organization sounds “very benign.” He added that the police don’t seem to have a problem with it, but he’s concerned about the public perception residents have and would like there to be an open forum before anything is finalized.

As for the notion that ATG and Green Heart Holistic Health and Pharmaceuticals, the other applicant for a medical marijuana license in Amesbury, would have to look elsewhere if a moratorium were imposed, Gray said he feels the city shouldn’t be forced under the gun just because the process started later than it should have.

If a moratorium allows the city to take its time to study the issue, he said, then that’s something the councilors should consider.

“I wish we’d started this process in September, but that’s not on us,” Gray said. “We need to proceed at a pace that makes sense for us, given where we are in the process.”

Edwards acknowledged that the way the process has played out in Amesbury hasn’t gone smoothly and that mistakes were made, but he hopes residents look past the politics and recognize the benefits of ATG’s proposal going forward.

“We agree with the common consensus that this process was not handled in an ideal way for anyone,” Edwards said. “We hope that doesn’t hinder the process at this point to move this forward in a way that’s mutually beneficial for patients, for Amesbury and for the DPH in getting this program off the ground.”