By Bill Kirk
---- — A Newburyport-based company has filed an application with the state Department of Public Health to open a marijuana dispensary in Essex County — possibly in Andover.
The company, Alternative Therapies Group, is one of 16 applicants for a dispensary in Essex County. In all, 181 applications were submitted to the state by last week’s deadline as part of the first phase of review.
Chris Edwards, president of the nonprofit company, confirmed last week that his organization filed an application and that the dispensary may end up in Andover.
“We are looking at a number of locations and have letters of intent on multiple properties,” Edwards said. “We are looking at a number of locations in a number of communities, but Andover is still a strong possibility.”
Edwards also told The Salem News, The Townsman’s sister paper, last week that his company is also considering a site in a “technology park area” in Salem.
Last fall, a medical marijuana ballot question passed overwhelmingly in the state. In Andover, 61 percent of voters approved the proposal.
State regulators recently issued guidelines for the businesses, which may only sell marijuana to people who have a doctor’s prescription based on a diagnosed medical problem.
Last Thursday, Aug. 22, was the deadline for Phase 1 application forms. The list of applicants includes the name of the nonprofit corporation, a contact person and the county of preference for the location. The list does not have specific addresses so it is unclear if any other medical marijuana dispensaries have been proposed in Andover or anywhere else in the Merrimack Valley.
According to state health officials, applications will be reviewed in two phases. Under Phase 1, dispensary applicants will be reviewed for, among other things, nonprofit status and financial viability. Applicants must also report whether any member of their proposed organization has a felony drug conviction.
Applicants who meet the qualifications in Phase 1 will be eligible to proceed to Phase 2 this fall where a selection committee will conduct an in-depth review and select dispensaries through a competitive process. The committee will evaluate and score Phase 2 applications based on such factors as appropriateness of the site, geographical distribution of dispensaries, local support and the applicant’s ability to meet the overall health needs of registered patients, while ensuring public safety.
The voter-approved law allows DPH to register up to 35 nonprofit dispensaries across the state, with at least one but no more than five dispensaries per county. DPH anticipates that the Phase 1 review will be completed by mid-September. At that time, the list of applicants that make it to Phase 2 will become available to the public.
The second phase of the process is lengthy, Edwards said.
“All these groups are putting together business plans that include cultivation, security and other details of their operations,” he said. “The applications will be hundreds of pages and highly detailed. Sites will be divulged complete with architectural drawings. There’s quite a bit of work to do.”
Edwards said his team has already started the work in anticipation of the state’s announcement of Phase 2 applicants.
“We’ve been working on the content for quite some time,” he said. “There’s been a lot of legwork going on for a while.”
Prospective marijuana dispensaries were required to pay a $1,500 fee for submission and consideration of the Phase 1 application. A $30,000 fee will then be required if they qualify for Phase 2 of the review. Both fees are non-refundable. Dispensaries that are selected for licenses must pay a $50,000 annual fee for a certificate of registration. There will also be a $500 annual registration fee for each dispensary agent.
One wrinkle faced by Edwards and his team, which includes former state Rep. David Torrisi, is that Andover may vote on a moratorium on medical dispensaries.
Edwards began talking to town officials in May, catching some people by surprise, even though there had been discussion about putting a moratorium on the May Town Meeting warrant.
However, that never happened and now Andover officials are trying to decide whether to hold a Special Town Meeting this fall, which could include a vote on a one-year moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries.
Selectmen Chairman Alex Vispoli said he is working with the town manager and Finance Committee to determine if a Special Town Meeting will be needed to spend $375,000 in state aid for schools that wasn’t anticipated in the 2014 budget.
“We’ll decide in September if a Special Town Meeting is necessary,” Vispoli said. “If we do have a fall Special Town Meeting, the town manager will recommend that (a moratorium) be put on the warrant.”
The moratorium, if approved by Town Meeting voters, would need approval from the state attorney general.
The attorney general’s office has approved several temporary moratoriums, including some in the Merrimack Valley, to give communities time to rework their bylaws to create zones or districts for marijuana dispensaries.
Edwards said he doesn’t want to force a marijuana dispensary on a town that doesn’t want one.
“We are trying very hard to find the best fit,” he said. “We are trying not to force this down somebody’s throat, even if we have the right to site it somewhere.”