, Salem, MA

February 18, 2014

Our view: Salem lucks out in medical marijuana licensing

The Salem News

---- — Massachusetts is new to the medical marijuana business, and it is clear that many lessons should be learned. A lot of them, it seems, are being learned the hard way.

Salem has been fortunate to avoid the problems that other communities are experiencing, though that appears to be no thanks to the state Department of Public Health, which seems to have fallen down on the job of vetting companies applying to open dispensaries.

In Haverhill and in Boston, some public officials are complaining that they never met with companies hoping to open dispensaries, as the companies’ applications claimed, nor did they express approvals that the companies claimed to have. Each of these firms paid a $30,000 application fee, presumably to cover the costs of investigating them, but as a story by reporter Douglas Moser pointed out last week, no one from the Department of Public Health ever contacted local officials to see if the claims made about local support, or “non-opposition,” were true.

In Amesbury, former Mayor Thatcher Kezer stirred some controversy when he sent letters on behalf of two businesses that sought to create medical marijuana farms in Amesbury. The applications had been kept quiet from the general public and a majority of city councilors until after the city election last fall. Councilors who’d been kept in the dark were surprised and upset.

Salem appears to have dodged a bullet. A firm called Alternative Therapies — the only one approved by the state to open a clinic here — began meeting with city officials more than a year ago, beginning with the mayor’s aide, city solicitor and planning director, moving on to the state representative, state senator, mayor, police chief, Board of Health and city councilors. They met with a council subcommittee, and then separately with Councilor Paul Prevey when he raised concerns from constituents. They met with the Mack Park Neighborhood Association, and they’ve since met with the Gallows Hill neighbors.

A letter of non-opposition from Mayor Kim Driscoll praised them for being “proactive, transparent and approachable.”

That they offered the city a “host community fee” of $50,000 a year, unsolicited, certainly didn’t hurt, but so far, the process appears to have been open and above-board.

The contrast with what’s happening in other communities, including Amesbury, which will supply marijuana to the Salem clinic, is disturbing. This is a new landscape for Massachusetts residents, and although a majority supported medical marijuana in a referendum, many now find themselves uncomfortable with the idea of siting a clinic in their own neighborhoods. That wary Salem neighbors were favorably impressed after meeting directly with Alternative Therapies underscores the importance of dealing with these issues openly and directly.

Had Salem not attracted a company willing to go through that difficult and time-consuming process, and had city officials not taken such an early and active interest, the city could be in a much different position. Massachusetts’ much-praised, stringent regulatory system appears to have stumbled in other communities, and we can only hope their final licenses are not issued until every last question is answered.