As Baltimore prepares for the opening of 11 medical marijuana dispensaries in the city, some residents say it's been difficult to get information about where they're opening or how the sites were selected.
The Baltimore City Council plans to hold a hearing at 1 p.m. Wednesday to get details about "the launching of upcoming medicinal marijuana dispensaries, their impact on local zoning and enforcement, and their impact on community master plans in Baltimore City."
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she called for the hearing after members of her district expressed concerns about a dispensary scheduled to open in the 3300 block of Keswick Road in Wyman Park.
"Basically they're concerned about reports and academic studies that indicate that in other locations throughout the nation crime increases in surrounding neighborhoods to these locations," Clarke said of residents of her district. "This backs up to a residential neighborhood. Yes, it's zoned commercial but there should be a process for community input for the location of these dispensaries."
While the Baltimore County Council has set zoning rules that will govern where medical marijuana businesses can open, Baltimore City officials have chosen to simply treat the marijuana facilities like pharmacies under the zoning code — and not pass special legislation for them. That means that a medical marijuana facility approved by the state doesn't need to get zoning approval from the city to open.
"My main concern is the lack of transparency," said Jack Boyson, president of the Wyman Park Community Association. "It appears some neighborhoods are going to be very surprised to find out they have medical marijuana dispensaries in their neighborhoods because it's not being announced. There have been no hearings. There has been no input. There is no zoning criteria in place in terms of how far away they should be from residential areas, child care centers, parks, churches and schools."
Alan Staple, owner of the proposed dispensary in Wyman Park, said he's met with Clarke and the local residents. He said he's working on a memorandum of understanding to address their concerns.
"Although medical cannabis has been approved in many states, it's new to Maryland and naturally people have many questions and some misconceptions," he said in an email. "Dispensaries will be serving patients in need, who have been approved by their physicians, much like a pharmacy. There's no reason to stigmatize patients that need medical cannabis. They are not criminals."
Mayor Catherine Pugh said she wants to make sure that patients have access to medical marijuana if a doctor prescribes it. But she said she also wants to be mindful of community concerns and not place the dispensaries in residential areas.
"I think they have questions that deserve answers," Pugh said of the residents. "I don't want to see them backed up against communities and neighborhoods."
The mayor said the dispensaries should be located in commercial areas "equitably distributed" throughout Baltimore.
"There are people in desperate need of this treatment," she said. "I would not want people denied that kind of treatment."
Maryland lawmakers approved medical marijuana in 2013, but it has 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. In many cases, the locations are just becoming known as operators prepare for final inspections ahead of a December deadline to open.
In Baltimore, 11 medical marijuana dispensaries have been pre-approved by the state in the city's six legislative districts.
* H&G Maryland LLC in Northwest Baltimore's District 41.
* Blair Wellness Center and Medical Products and Services Inc. in North Baltimore's District 43.
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* Charm City Relief Partners LLC in Southwest Baltimore's District 44.
Baltimore County lawmakers moved in 2015 to place restrictions on where the centers can open. Medical marijuana dispensaries there must be 500 feet away from schools and 2,500 feet from another dispensary, according to legislation passed by the County Council.
Lester Davis, a spokesman for Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, said city officials are following existing law in how they are implementing the medical marijuana program.
He noted that the dispensaries are approved by the state, not the city. Davis said Wednesday's hearing will allow Baltimore residents to ask questions and get answers.
"All the laws have been followed," Davis said. "The hearing on the 30th will be helpful for giving folks a venue to get information and letting them ask questions. It's always a good thing for there to be more information in a public setting."