Though many speakers told the Town Plan and Zoning Commission Tuesday night that they don't oppose the distribution of medical marijuana under a new state program, they aren't particularly high on the Post Road site proposed for a dispensary.
The TPZ on Tuesday concluded the second and final night of hearings on the application of the CT Wellness Center to open a dispensary in town -- if the business is approved for one of the three to five licenses the state expects to initially award. Statutes require that dispensary applicants first receive local zoning approval before submitting an application to the state.
Unlike the first hearing, where the majority of the commenters favored the application, the crowd Tuesday urged the commission to deny the application filed by David Lipton and the CT Wellness Center to open a dispensary in a storefront at 222 Post Road.
No vote was taken by the commission, which also has received a second application to open a medical marijuana dispensary at 400 Post Road. The plan has been tabled until the first application is resolved.
"This is not a referendum about cancer or helping people," said Shoreham Villager Drive resident Leslie Geary. "This is about some zoning, OK?"
Geary said she finds the proximity of the proposed dispensary, which would be across the Post Road from her neighborhood, to be alarming. "I'm angry and I'm scared," Geary said.
Another resident pointed out that a high school bus stop is across the street from the entrance to the shopping center where the dispensary would be located.
In three days, said Shoreham Village Drive resident Linda Coleman, neighbors were able to collect 160 signatures on a petition in opposition to the application.
Carol Way, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 10 and former Zoning Board of Appeals member, said it's interesting that the town denied an application for an Applebee's Restaurant on the Post Road "because we might have drunk drivers or ... there was not enough parking," but are now deliberating on a medical marijuana dispensary.
"I really feel this is the wrong place," Way said, noting the site is not far from the Post Road traffic rotary where a McDonald's restaurant is located.
Police Chief Gary MacNamara was asked by the commission to weigh in the application. MacNamara said he has some concerns, but said one of his biggest questions is that marijuana is still illegal under federal law. He said while the U.S. Department of Justice has indicated it will not enforce the law in states that have made it legal, that could change.
Asked by TPZ Commissioner Sally Parker if there aren't safer places in town for such a dispensary, such as on Reef Road near police headquarters, MacNamara said that location is not a guarantee of safety. He reminded the commission that Kim and Tim Donnelly, who owned a jewelry store just down the street from police headquarters, were killed in their store by an armed robber.
"Can it happen that we're going to see illegal activity?" asked Commissioner Gerald Alessi, suggesting that once the dispensary opens dealers might come to the area, offering to sell patients marijuana cheaper. "When word gets out, it's a possibility," MacNamara said. "There's going to be attention drawn to this business ... It's legal, but it's illegal."
Several residents said they have relatives in California or Colorado, who report there have been enormous problems associated with medical marijuana dispensaries. Others said a better location for a dispensary might be in an existing medical office building, and not the proposed strip shopping center.
But Diane Whitney, the lawyer for CT Wellness Centers, said the comparison with other states is not valid. In Colorado, for example, she said there are 1,200 dispensaries. Connecticut's regulations for dispensaries, as well as for the patients and illnesses qualified for medical marijuana, are much more strict, Whitney said.
Lipton said 21 states now have approved marijuana for medical use, and New Jersey recently approved its use by children with epilepsy. It is an option people should have, he said. "I lost my mother to lung cancer last year," Lipton said. "She didn't have the choice to use medical marijuana to alleviate her pain."
He started this, he said, as a business venture. "I'm proud to have become an advocate for it. I feel very strongly."
In addition to concerns expressed by residents and commissioners about a possible spike in crime in the dispensary area, TPZ Commissioner Matthew Wagner also asked what banks the business would use. Concerns have been expressed that since marijuana use is still technically against federal law, that banks will be hesitant to do business with a dispensary.
Lipton said he does have a bank for his enterprise, but declined to identify it. He also said the state law requires the marijuana producers to put up a $2 million cash bond for five years. Lipton has received zoning approval in West Haven for a medical marijuana farm."It gets returned over time based on performance," he said.
Under the medical marijuana regulations approved earlier this year, patients cannot enter the dispensary unless they have received a state license, and prescriptions can only be issued by state-certified doctors. There are stringent security regulations, including the number and types of alarm and surveillance. Patients cannot get more than a one-month supply at a time.
The marijuana is transported in an armed vehicle, with the product locked in the trunk. Two armed guards are required for the transport, and one must stay in the vehicle at all times.
According to the state, there are 240 registered medical marijuana patients in Fairfield County, the second highest number in Connecticut. The largest number of registered patients is in New Haven County, and Whitney said it is likely that one of the dispensaries will be approved by the state for that county.
Joel Green, the lawyer who represents Shoreham Village Drive resident David Foster, said Fairfield is a caring and compassionate community. "This is a zoning matter," Green said, pointing out there was no traffic study done for the application. "This a congested area," said Green, who also questioned whether the parking lot had an adequate number of spaces for the projected number of visitors.