Business / Health

Planned marijuana dispensary divides Hunts Point

Joe Hirsch

The site of a proposed new medical marijuana dispensary on Oak Point Ave.

New business sets to open in January, raising crime concerns

A company that specializes in selling medical marijuana is slated to open a dispensary in Hunts Point on Jan. 1 2016, worrying some residents that it will bring back with it the kinds of vice and crime the community has been fighting for decades.

Illinois-based PharmaCannis says it will open four medical marijuana dispensaries in New York. The only branch the company is planning to open in the five boroughs is slated to open in an empty storefront at the corner of Oak Point Ave. and Coster Street. The other three will be located in towns near Syracuse, Albany and Buffalo.

PharmaCannis is one of five companies the New York State Department of Health Department has authorized to grow and sell marijuana for medical use under the Compassionate Care Act, which Governor Cuomo signed into law in July 2014. Marijuana legalization advocacy groups see no downside to new dispensaries.

“Patients suffering from AIDS find medical marijuana stimulates their appetite,” said Mason Tvert, communications director at the Marijuana Policy Project, an organization campaigning to legalize pot nationwide. “These are businesses that will create jobs and provide services to a local community.”

But the district manager of Community Board 2, Rafael Salamanca, said residents were stunned and angry when they heard about the planned dispensary for the first time in the spring. The owner of a hardware store next to the proposed site said he is worried about the implications for the neighborhood.

“For years and years we’ve worked hard to get rid of the problems, and now a marijuana dispensary will be in our backyards,” said Gary Jacobs, the owner of F&F Supply, a hardware store that has been in operation since 1941. “I think it’s horrible. PharmaCannis doesn’t know what they’re getting themselves into.”

Despite a prohibitive $200,000 application fee and a $10,000 registration fee, 43 companies applied for medical marijuana dispensing permits with the health department. Just a week before PharmaCannis’s application was due, a realtor found the site for the dispensary in the heart of Hunts Point’s industrial area.

“The site met our criteria,” said Norah Scott, co-founder of PharmaCannis. “We understand it’s a historically underserved area and this is a good opportunity to serve the local patients.”

Salamanca said there is a need for the product in Hunts Point, pointing to terminally ill residents and children who suffer from epilepsy.

Death rates from the AIDS virus are higher in the Bronx than in any other borough, according to a 2014 report by the city health department. Medical marijuana, which is commonly used to treat AIDS patients, is also used for patients suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and cancer. The drug is said to help mitigate some symptoms linked to these conditions, such as pain, severe nausea and loss of appetite.

But federal opposition to legalizing pot complicates operations like PharmaCannis’. Because the drug is still banned by the federal government, businesses operating in states where it has been legalized are not permitted to accept credit card payments for it, so customers pay with cash.  The prospect of customers frequenting the new business with wads of cash in their pockets worries some.

To collect sums earned from PharmaCannis’ daily sales, an armed truck will drive up every day to pick up the money.  And because the company cannot open its own bank account due to the federal restrictions, a different company will deposit the money for them in exchange for a small commission.

“This all happened very quickly,” said State Sen. Jeffrey Klein, whose district includes a part of the Hunts Point peninsula. But he added that residents’ anxieties are due to a lack of information about the new operation. “We need to make sure the company has an educational component.”

Representatives of PharmaCannis say they plan to be good neighbors, which will include hiring local workers, said Scott. But though state law requires the dispensaries to retain at least 1000 feet distance from schools, daycare centers and places of worship, residents say the choice to locate the new business in such a remote location may have its own disadvantages.  The nearest subway stop is more than a mile away.

“We feel that this could be somewhere more accessible,” said Salamanca. “People will be watching and seeing how to take advantage.”

“Why didn’t they pick somewhere closer to a hospital? Or near the patients they will treat?” asked Jacobs.

Two other confirmed dispensaries coming to New York City will be located in more populated areas: One is slated to open across the street from the busy Queens Center Mall, and another will open in Union Square in Manhattan across from a subway station.

But Scott contended that PharmaCannis was required to include a robust security plan with its applications to the health department. Safety measures include hiring security guards, investing in motion detectors and video cameras, and installing multiple layering of doors leading to a vault that will contain the marijuana.

To overcome concerns about the inconvenient location of the new site, she added, a shuttle will bring people to and from the dispensary from the Longwood side of the Bruckner.

Not only the business itself will be carefully scrutinized. Doctors will have to pass a state administered course on the benefits and risks of medical marijuana before they can certify specific patients to buy and use it, and eligible patients will be required to show a special ID card.

But even with all the precautionary measures, some residents remain unconvinced.

“Crime will increase because people will find a way to make it a street drug,” said longtime local housing advocate Joyce Campbell-Culler.

“Somehow, the black market always finds a way,” said Salamanca.

As of mid-September, PharmaCannis representatives had yet to visit the Bronx. Though they were expected to meet with the Community Board in early September,they cancelled, saying they were busy handling issues at their upstate dispensaries.

Jacobs worries that whatever measures the new company takes to comply with state laws and remain good neighbors, it may not be enough to offset the trouble they’ll bring with them.

“I will presume PharmaCannis will know what to do on the inside,” said Jacobs. “It’s the outside I’m worried about.”

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