Jeannine Peterson learned about a medical marijuana dispensary landing in sight of Hamilton Health Center’s South Allison Hill campus “the same way the public heard about it—in the paper.”
The Hamilton Health CEO had questions.
“Why did you decide to locate here in the first place?” she said. “They never asked anyone in the city. South Allison Hill has a very active community group. We could have told you all the plans already in motion for the businesses to come here and build up this community.”
Pennsylvania’s process for siting medical marijuana dispensaries reveals a slew of regulations tempered by a bit of art.
Many find their way to distressed areas because the Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Act incentivizes locating in Act 47 cities, which include Harrisburg. While dispensary owners claim economic benefit, some residents—at least in the case of the Allison Hill site—question whether the benefits stay in the neighborhood.
Those same Act 47 cities are usually home to clusters of schools and licensed day cares, and dispensaries must remain 1,000 feet away, unless they get a waiver through local and state officials.
Which is where the S. 17th Street facility might have encountered a snag. Two daycares with active licenses are within the restricted zone, according to Pennsylvania’s Compass childcare finder. Apparently, neither was cited in the dispensary’s permit application, which was approved on Dec. 18.
To seek a post-permit waiver of the 1,000-foot rule, applicants must obtain statements presenting the views of the city and the affected day cares or schools, said PA Health Department Director of Communications April Hutcheson. They must also demonstrate that they performed their due diligence in seeking out possible sites.
By mid-April, the department had not received a waiver application from Local Dispensaries, LLC, but Hutcheson said the company was “asking how to go about the process.”
The city, however, has already written the department verifying the nearby daycare, said Mayor Eric Papenfuse. The dispensary owner has seemed willing to move, Papenfuse said. However, he added, “I think there’s some issues with how these permits are being awarded.”
The city supports dispensaries at other locations, Papenfuse said. The issue, as he sees it, is a lack of consultation with the community.
“Hamilton Health didn’t even know,” said Papenfuse. “Clearly, the Department of Health did not do due diligence in reviewing the application. I don’t blame the applicant. They did what they were supposed to do.”
And this concern about neighborhood support and impact isn’t confined to Allison Hill. Some Uptown residents have complained they weren’t consulted about the second approved facility in Harrisburg—the planned location of Harvest of South Central PA’s dispensary into the former Camp Curtin Bar-B-Que on N. 6th Street.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to be awarding licenses without the Department of Health having a conversation with the city,” Papenfuse said. “They really ought to have a requirement to have the immediate neighborhood’s support before awarding the license.”
As of press time, at least one affected childcare near the proposed Allison Hill dispensary had not been approached.
Debra Washington has operated Tiny Tears Day Care on Derry Street for 20 years. The inner city has “enough woes” without a medical marijuana dispensary, she said, as she wondered why the facility doesn’t locate downtown.
“The least they could have done was come and see why I object to it, but they never even bothered,” Washington said. “I guess they feel as though they can jump right over me, and I don’t think that can happen.”
Hamilton Health Center is also upset because its own planned day care center, approved by the city in 2017, falls within the 1,000-foot zone. However, land remediation issues have delayed construction, and according to Hutcheson, application reviews consider only existing facilities.
Peterson has told facility owners that Hamilton Health Center is “not opposed at all” to medical marijuana.
“We understand the efficacy of medical marijuana,” she said. “We just didn’t think that was an appropriate location for a dispensary.”
Dispensary applicants aren’t deliberately seeking low-income communities but, instead, look for “density of population” and ease of access, said Harrisburg attorney Judith D. Cassel, of Cannabis Law PA, which specializes in medical marijuana regulatory law.
“Inner cities often provide better mass transit, so the patients can get to them, as opposed to being out in rural areas,” she said.
Some Pennsylvania dispensaries are in higher-income areas, Cassel said. Hutcheson noted, for instance, that the dispensary in the Enola mailing address is actually in Hampden Township.
Dispensary permits are scored for criteria including security, business capacity and community impact. However, applications from the Dec. 18 round of permits are undergoing redaction and are not yet available for public review. Applicants can request that trade secrets be redacted, and, as Cassel noted, even a business plan’s community impact efforts can be shielded from rival dispensaries.
Local Dispensaries, LLC, received a community impact score of 93 out of a possible 100.
“How do you get a high score for community impact?” said Peterson. “What are the criteria? No one has been able to tell us that. They didn’t talk to anyone in the community.”
Peter Bio, listed in state documents as CEO of Local Dispensaries, LLC, did not respond to questions and messages sent to his contact information.
In a statement aired by ABC27, Local Dispensaries said that its primary goal “is to provide relief for the thousands of citizens of Harrisburg who previously had to find it through opioids, other pharmaceuticals or nowhere at all.” According to that statement, the company has been “in active dialogue with the department, Mayor Papenfuse and Hamilton Health Center” and expects to deliver “a project that will provide local jobs and inject $1.5 million into a previously vacant and disused lot.”
Wendy Scott, secretary of the South Allison Hill Homeowners & Residents Association, isn’t aware of any pre-application outreach to the community by dispensary owners. And she doesn’t see a shower of economic or health benefits for neighbors, especially because insurance doesn’t cover the costs of certification for medical marijuana use, state ID cards or product purchases.
“If it’s only for the elite, for those who can afford it, it’s not helping Allison Hill at all,” she said.
Medical marijuana dispensaries are not the head shops of old, said Hutcheson. Patients must be physician-certified with one of 21 approved medical conditions. Products are tightly packaged, and the department can “track the marijuana from the seed where it’s grown to the grower to the patient.”
“Only approved products can be sold at a dispensary,” she said. “Only approved patients can walk into a dispensary. It is very, very highly controlled and highly regulated.”
Papenfuse sees room for all perspectives.
“Bottom line is, the city does not have an issue with a dispensary coming into the city,” he said. “We just want to make sure that the location is correct and successful and has the support of the immediate neighborhood.”
Dispensaries must be operational within six months after permits are awarded, although extensions are possible. Hamilton Health officials know that the clock is ticking, said Peterson. But she sees “a perception that because we’re in a low-income community, that there’s no development going on, that they come in and they’re going to be the entity that creates economic development.”
In reality, she said, Hamilton Health Center has a $3 million expansion underway, new apartments are entering the market, and the Harrisburg Housing Authority and Tri County Community Action are among those pursuing redevelopment. The community really does “invest in ourselves,” she said.
“We take a lot of pride in what we do,” she said. “It’s not that we don’t want other businesses to come in. We do. Any time I get an opportunity, I’m encouraging businesses to come see what’s going on. We want businesses, but we want the right businesses, the businesses that can help our community to grow and thrive.”