A zoning bill introduced because of community concern may block the opening of a medical marijuana dispensary in Baltimore County. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)
John Seifert was having trouble renting out his shuttered flower shop in Baltimore County. Finally, a real estate agent found a potential tenant: a medical marijuana dispensary.
Seifert signed a five-year lease with the firm, which wants to sell cannabis tinctures, oils and other products to patients from the Nottingham property. The 69-year-old, who lives three doors away, thought the business would be a good fit.
Some neighbors disagree. They worry a dispensary could attract crime, and say it doesn't belong near homes, or a potential school site down the road.This month, their county councilman introduced legislation that would change local zoning rules for marijuana dispensaries — potentially blocking Seifert's tenant from opening on his property.
Councilman David Marks says he backs medical cannabis, but wants the dispensaries limited to commercial areas.
"Many people support the concept," the Perry Hall Republican said. "They just don't want it in their neighborhood."
Similar conflicts are unfolding around the state, as firms that have won preliminary licenses to operate dispensaries sign leases and prepare for final inspections — and neighbors learn of their plans.
In Baltimore, residents are asking questions about a dispensary planned for Wyman Park; City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke has requested a public hearing. Officials in Queen Anne's County set new restrictions on where facilities may be located; a dispensary company sued. Residents of Anne Arundel County have spoken out against planned dispensaries there.
Other states that have legalized the distribution of medical marijuana through dispensaries — such as Illinois, Massachusetts and Connecticut — have experienced similar friction.
Darrell Carrington, a cannabis lobbyist with Greenwill Consulting Group, blamed the opposition on fears of the unknown.
"Because it's new, people are suspect," Carrington said. He said dispensaries will be tightly regulated by the state, with "more security measures built into this program than you would ever imagine."
Carrington said a dispensary will resemble "a holistic doctor's office." Only patients and caregivers will be allowed to enter. The interiors will have retail sections and private consultation areas. Dispensaries will be required to secure their products in vaults.
Maryland lawmakers approved medical marijuana in 2013, but it's taken years for the program to get off the ground. The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission has granted preliminary dispensary licenses to 102 operators. Only one — the Wellness Institute of Maryland in Frederick — has received final state approval to open.
The commission awarded the preliminary licenses by state Senate district. When applying for the licenses, prospective operators did not have to specify their proposed locations — indeed, most had not finalized those plans. In many cases, it's only now, as operators prepare for final inspections ahead of a December deadline to open, that the locations of the businesses are becoming known.
Peggy Winchester is president of the South Perry Hall Boulevard Improvement Association. In Seifert's neighborhood, she said, "the majority of the the people that I have spoken to have no problem with medical marijuana. They just don't think it should be dispensed in the middle of a residential neighborhood."
Among residents' concerns, association treasurer Catherine Ward said, is that the neighborhood will become a target for criminals because the business will accept cash only (banks and credit card companies have been wary of involving themselves in an industry still not sanctioned by the federal government).
The dispensary planned for the 3300 block of Keswick Road in Wyman Park has inspired similar worries, said Jack Boyson, president of the Wyman Park Community Association. Residents also wonder whether a dispensary could reduce the value of their homes.
Boyson asked why local officials haven't solicited public comment on where dispensaries should be located.
The association has scheduled an open meeting for residents to discuss dispensary issues with city officials on Wednesday evening at the Keswick Multi-Care Center.
Clarke, whose district includes Wyman Park, said she requested a council hearing to discuss dispensaries. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young plans to schedule the hearing for August, a spokesman said.
Marks' bill in Baltimore County would require copies of county permit applications for dispensaries to be sent to the council member in whose district they plan to locate.
"What really upsets me [is] we have elected officials who knew nothing about it," resident Bernadine Seymour said. "We learned it through the grapevine."
While the state program allows two dispensaries per state senatorial district, local government officials have authority over the exact location.
There's no map the public can consult to see where the dispensaries are to be located.
Patrick Jameson, executive director of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, said the state doesn't know the addresses of the businesses until they request final inspections. Once a dispensary is licensed, he said, its address will be posted to the commission's website.
Kate Bell, legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project, said many people may have misconceptions about what a dispensary will look like. Her organization takes policymakers on tours of regulated facilities.
"When people see what it actually looks like, it really changes their mind," she said. "If people have never seen a lawful, regulated, taxed cannabis business, they don't have any sort of frame of reference."
But Kevin Sabet, president of the anti-legalization organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said people have legitimate concerns about dispensaries in their neighborhoods.
"I think people see them like they do liquor stores," Sabet said. "Having a large number of liquor stores is not usually a selling point for any community."
Sabet said neighborhoods around the country have pushed back against dispensaries.
"What we've been seeing is that the politically empowered communities are able to stop pot shops from coming to their neighborhoods, while the politically disenfranchised communities have been left" to take them.
In Anne Arundel County, residents spoke out against two dispensaries — one in Annapolis and another in Edgewater. But the businesses have received zoning approval.
"Everybody is for this idea until it's going to move into their backyard," said Owen McEvoy, a spokesman for Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh.
Schuh proposed an outright ban on medical marijuana facilities a few years ago. But the county eventually approved rules allowing for them.
The Baltimore County Council signed off on regulations for cannabis dispensaries in 2015 that limited them to areas with business zoning.
Those rules prohibit dispensaries within 500 feet of a school. Marks' bill would also ban dispensaries within 800 feet of Board of Education property that has been identified as a future school site.
Seifert's property on Ridge Road is about 750 feet from land owned by the school system, said Bill Huber, a principal in LMS Wellness, the company that plans to operate there.
County schools spokeswoman Diana Spencer said no building plans have been approved for the Board of Education parcel.
Carrington, the industry lobbyist, says opponents are not being reasonable. He pointed to the addictive opioids for sale at local pharmacies.
"You have Oxycontin and Percocets at Walmart and Walgreens and Shoppers and Target," he said.
Seifert said he didn't know about Marks' bill until he was informed of it by a reporter. He said dispensary owners ensured they had proper zoning for the property, which his family has owned for more than 100 years. He retired a few years ago and closed the flower shop that had operated there.
"I didn't think [a marijuana dispensary] was a bad thing at all because of the medical benefits it would have for people," he said. "Security's going to be very high, I know that."
Seifert and dispensary representatives met with some residents last week to hear their concerns.
"When you're having any kind of community project, there has to be transparency," said state Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, a Democrat who attended the meeting. "You have to include the people you're going to be living with."
At least one local zoning dispute over cannabis has led to a lawsuit. Hippocratic Growth, a dispensary, sued the Queen Anne's County Commission this year over restrictions on where it could open. A circuit court judge ruled in the county's favor last month; the dispensary is appealing the ruling.
In Nottingham, Huber said his group wants to address community questions going forward.
"We want to be as transparent and communicative as possible," Huber said. "The last thing you want do is upset a community with your business."