By Neil H. Dempsey
---- — SALEM — Alternative Therapies Group cleared one of its last hurdles this week when the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals issued the nonprofit a permit to operate a medical marijuana dispensary on Grove Street.
Although the group had already been awarded a provisional license from the state Department of Public Health for its 50 Grove St. location, Alternative Therapies needed local approval because dispensaries are considered medical clinics under the city’s law.
At a public hearing Thursday night, Chris Edwards, executive director of Alternative Therapies, and its lawyer, George Atkins, explained the operation and answered questions.
Atkins noted that unlike other groups that had sought licenses from the state — including Good Chemistry of Massachusetts, which had hoped to open a site in Salem — Alternative Therapies has not turned up in the news because of possible misstatements or errors in its application.
“They haven’t been criticized like many other applicants have been,” Atkins said.
Asked about parking at the dispensary, they said they expect 10 to 15 patients an hour and will have 86 parking spaces on site.
Board members also asked for specifics about the $50,000 that Alternative Therapies has offered to the city each year as part of a host community agreement, but that agreement is still being worked out, Atkins said.
Board chairwoman Rebecca Curran expressed reluctance to issue a permit without first spelling out special conditions for it in concert with the planning department and city solicitor, but Atkins urged them to do so anyway, saying the company needs the approval to go ahead with their plans.
“We’re a long ways out, and we need to get started,” Atkins said. He said it wouldn’t be unusual for a special permit to be issued and the conditions worked out later, adding, “We’re not fearful of your conditions at all.”
The board eventually voted to approve the permit. The conditions they anticipate setting involve signage, security, landscaping, parking and hours of operation. They also want in writing that the special permit cannot be transferred to another dispensary and that no cultivation would be allowed at the site under any circumstances.
Several people spoke in favor of the dispensary at the meeting, including city Councilors Josh Turiel, David Eppley and Beth Gerard.
“What they have described to me, this is going to be a run-of-the-mill doctor’s office,” Gerard said.
Rose Mary O’Connor, chairwoman of the Mack Park Neighborhood Association, also delivered supportive comments.
“They’ve been more than willing to meet with us,” she said. “I can’t say enough.”
Nobody spoke against Alternative Therapies at the meeting, although the opportunity to do so only came about three hours after it began.
The closest thing to opposition Alternative Therapies encountered came during a brief exchange with board member Richard Dionne, who said he was concerned that one of the conditions that could qualify a patient for medical marijuana is hepatitis C, which is “usually is associated with dirty needles for heroin use,” he said.
Atkins objected to the characterization, but Dionne continued.
“You would agree that marijuana is a gateway drug?” he asked.
Edwards said he didn’t, that he believed alcohol was more of a “gateway drug” than marijuana.
Board members quickly changed the subject.
Later, Curran read aloud a letter of support for Alternative Therapies from state Rep. John Keenan. It was apparently the first time a local or state official had offered outright support — as opposed to “non-opposition” — for the dispensary.
The board will meet next on March 19, at which point the permit’s conditions are expected to have been developed.
Alternative Therapies hopes to open by Aug. 1. It will need to pass a state inspection right beforehand in order to do so.
Neil H. Dempsey can be reached at email@example.com.