For those unaware, medical marijuana is now legal in Pennsylvania and the response to the newly created patient registry has been fairly robust, with nearly 4000 patients signing up for the program. However, not all the news about the program has been positive thus far. Just a quick overview about how it all works - in order for a patient to qualify for marijuana, they must get approved by a state-licensed doctor and meet one or more of the following 17 criteria. Once prescribed, the patient must get their prescription filled by a state licensed dispensary, which are slated to open within the next 6 months.
What interests me in particular though, isn't whether people should or shouldn't be allowed access to marijuana, but rather, where are these dispensaries going to be located; and, what will municipalities do in response?
The current regulatory mindset in Philadelphia appears to be somewhat tolerant of these dispensaries, which for commercial landlords is great news, what with the increasing difficulty in finding tenants to lease up storefront retail. Under Philadelphia's zoning code, Medical Marijuana Dispensary is considered a "Retail Sales Use", under the category "Consumer Goods" - which makes sense. Delving further into the regulations, no medical marijuana dispensary use may be located:
In PA, the current list of approved locations of dispensaries is located here. At the moment, in Philadelphia there are four approved locations:
I will give the benefit of the doubt at the moment and believe that it's just a coincidence that these neighborhoods are going to be under-served for the time being. However, with a variance granted for the 12th and Walnut location, (there are not one but two daycares within the 500 ft exclusion zone), if we don't start to see dispensaries opening along Baltimore Ave, Cecil B. Moore, Passyunk or other similar locations, it's going to become increasingly difficult to believe that the lack of diverse locations is coincidental.
The city is treating medical marijuana dispensaries in a similar way as other "regulated" uses - and it's understandable why. There's a real, valid risk of dispensaries acting as fronts for recreational use that is still not legal in PA. In my opinion though, that risk is extremely small here. The list of qualifying conditions in PA include things like cancer, Parkinson's, and Multiple Sclerosis - things pretty hard to fake. A doctor may write a bogus script on occasion, but these incidents are likely going to be the exception, not the rule. While two doctors have already been expelled from the program, they represent just 2 out of over 100 doctors already approved - a 2% failure rate and dropping with each legitimate approval. Patients faking symptoms are probably the greater risk than fraudulent doctors or dispensaries, but as mentioned, these symptoms overall are pretty hard to fake.
However, because there will likely always be the occasional sham site, cities will treat dispensaries as literal "drug" stores. To me this is somewhat hypocritical, because the typical pharmacy has significantly MORE amphetamines and depressants in their inventory than any medical marijuana dispensary would ever have. The risks of drugs like Oxycontin, Adderall, and Morphine making their way into the general population have been shown to happen again and again and again - yet no one to my knowledge is recommending we put a 500 ft exclusion zone around a Walgreens. Indeed, many economic development practitioners and neighborhood residents would be thrilled to have a CVS open up if it meant access to lower cost goods and services, not to mention its likelihood to be a catalyst for additional investment.
And yet, there's still a social stigma associated with marijuana use among some. I certainly can appreciate that the "optics" don't look great if a dispensary is located next to a strip club. The optics probably look even worse if there's a dispensary next to a day care. For commercial corridor managers and economic development practitioners, particularly in lower income communities, a dispensary could be both a welcome sign of investment, or a detriment to the community's reputation. For other local retail operators, it will remain to be seen whether they view these dispensaries as supportive of their branding, or anathema to it.
While Philadelphia has somewhat opened its doors, it's likely that other less tolerant cities will work to try and develop regulations that further restrict where and how these facilities can locate. It's quite possible in the future to see municipalities use their zoning powers to limit dispensaries to fringe locations on the outskirts of population centers.
In my opinion, if this happens, it would be most unfortunate, Not just because it would likely further stigmatize people who need marijuana to cope with their pain, but because that would deprive commercial areas of needed retail diversity and consumer expenditure at a time where main street revitalization efforts are fighting a battle against online retailing. In my opinion, so long as these facilities are legal under PA state law, efforts should be made to incorporate them into main street retail hierarchy to help continue the resurgence of Pennsylvania's downtowns.
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