With last week's decision that Northeast Patients Group, based in Augusta, has been chosen by state health officials to open the first medical-marijuana dispensary in Cumberland County, we have moved just a tad closer to having an actual functioning medicinal-pot system in Maine.
Approved by voters last November, Question 5 authorized the creation of a state-overseen system of non-profit dispensaries. The state set up a task force to create guidelines and consider proposals from organizations wishing to establish dispensaries.
Last Friday, the state Department of Health and Human Services chose NPG from among six applicants to open the Cumberland County dispensary. NPG was also chosen to open three other regional dispensaries, and two other firms will open two more. Two regions of the state, including York County, do not yet have approved dispensaries; the state is reopening applications for those areas. (The state's plan is to position dispensaries around the state for handy access, but regardless of where they live, patients can choose which dispensary they want to be served by. They can only designate one dispensary at a time but may change at any time.)
NPG, the biggest player in Maine's medical-marijuana market, is associated with the Berkeley Patients Group, a decade-old California-based dispensary. The company has said its preferred location for a Cumberland County dispensary is at 959 Congress Street, the former Key Bank building on the corner of St. John Street. It has looked at other locations in Portland and South Portland, and proposed in its application a backup location at 95 Preble Street, near the Salvation Army.
That may be possible (read on for information about proposed city restrictions on dispensary locations), but the city will still need to evaluate the location proposal, and let's not forget that more dispensary licenses will be made available (DHHS says it will make a decision about adding more after the first year).
So the Portland Phoenix set out to find some places the dispensary — and future ones — could go. Patients have concerns about how easy it will be to get to, how much parking will be available, and whether other social services are nearby for convenient access. There are public and official concerns about proximity to schools, parks, and other public spaces. (Marijuana advocates note that the locations of pharmacies and liquor stores don't generally arouse public concern.) Plus, there are the standard business concerns about available space, rent, and visibility.
To serve what the NPG says will be around 280 medical-marijuana patients from around the county in the first year of operation (though other estimates go into the thousands), it seems likely that Cumberland County's dispensary will be located in Portland or South Portland, because of population density and transportation options. Both cities' governments have begun planning, with Portland District 2 councilor David Marshall proposing zoning changes that would allow a dispensary in the downtown commercial areas — the council is expected to vote on that later this month. South Portland mayor Tom Coward says suggested zoning changes in his city would allow dispensaries in the built-up shopping areas around the Maine Mall, which can already handle high traffic and are generally away from homes and parks.