If a medical marijuana growing operation opened near Lorraine Miller’s home off Route 512, the 82-year-old said she’d have a few questions.
Standing in her kitchen Tuesday morning with a pot of coffee gurgling behind her, Miller said she’d worry about security at the site. Would people be lifting the drug to sell elsewhere? Would there be robberies?
“Nothing is guaranteed,” she said of sufficient security. “I would always have questions about something like that. I’d need to know how it would be managed. It seems like [the drug] would be an easier thing to slip through the cracks.”
Hanover Township, Northampton County, supervisors are among the first local leaders in the Lehigh Valley preparing to handle the industry head-on when it closes in on what the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission says is the third-most sought after location in the state.
Michael Bronstein, lead consultant for the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp, hopes wide support for medical marijuana use and efforts by the industry to educate the public on the serious security and professionalism of the operations will sway skeptics like Miller.
But there are plenty of residents already on board. Diana, 56, and Jennifer LaTourre, 43, a Hanover Township couple, welcome the industry to the Lehigh Valley. “I believe in using nature for healing,” Jennifer LaTourre said. “It doesn’t get more natural than a plant. This is a good thing, but I can imagine people getting upset.”
Mark Sanchez, 52, won’t be one of those people. Walking two German shepherds in the Hanover Crossing neighborhood, he said he’d have no qualms with a facility moving in. “Doesn’t bother me at all,” Sanchez said. “It’s going to be everywhere eventually anyway.”
The Lehigh Valley is likely to be a prime target for medical marijuana growers and dispensary sites because of its central geography, open space and major highways. State Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, one of the authors of the medical marijuana bill, said he’s already heard from six operators evaluating the Lehigh Valley as a potential home.
“There’s definitely a market in the Lehigh Valley,” he said. “With our transportation network and our well-established medical industry – we have a nice little niche here.”
About 20 area municipalities are exploring how to best prepare for this new wave of business, according to LVPC Executive Director Becky Bradley. Crafting zoning ordinances ensures a municipality is protected and has a say in how the new industry takes shape within their borders. The LVPC has been urging municipalities to take the initiative in drafting legislation.
Prospective operators must secure site control – that is own or lease or have the option to do either at a property – before they will receive state licensing to operate.
Hanover Township, Northampton County, is the first municipality in the Valley to put the effort into a concrete form. A public hearing on a zoning ordinance that would establish regulation for medical marijuana facilities is slated for Dec. 20.
Growing operations would be permitted in industrial or light industrial zones, while dispensaries would be allowed in commercial zones. Neither facility could be within 1,000 feet of a school or day care center. While the operations have plenty of unique rules, state law prohibits municipalities from saddling the industry with regulations significantly more strict than for other industries.
“We always try to be as proactive as we can,” Hanover Township Supervisors Chairman John Diacogiannis said. “There’s certainly ample area for the type of facilities they may be looking for. We’d rather be prepared for specifically where they could be.”
Upper Macungie Township, long a target for warehouses, is well aware of how attractive its land will look to the industry. Supervisor Kathy Rader suspects a zoning ordinance could be ready for adoption by early next year.
Educating the public on growing operations and how they’ll work is going to be important for helping the industry get a foothold in the Valley, according to Bradley. She estimates there’s demand enough for at least two growing facilities and two dispensaries in the Lehigh Valley.
Marijuana will be grown in a heavily secured facility that looks more like a research building than a greenhouse, according to Bronstein. He said sophisticated security will include fencing, cameras, armed guards and employee precautions such as individual panic buttons.
Loading areas are to be discreet and transportation of the product will be done in vehicles the size of vans rather than tractor-trailers – a win for any skeptical residents worried about the traffic burden, Bronstein said.
“People would be surprised as to how business-oriented and professional it is. These are first and foremost businesses,” Bronstein said. “People locally should feel good about what the [state] Department of Health has done in vetting these businesses.”
The economic impact is another element that works in favor of the industry, Schweyer said. Each growing operation, he said, is expected to employ 75 to 150 workers.
“This could be a really great shot in the arm for the Lehigh Valley’s economy,” Schweyer said.
And while support for medical marijuana among the public has been high, Bradley acknowledged that decades of anti-drug campaigns have laid the foundation for general distrust.
Miller, the 82-year-old woman with a sense of skepticism about the facilities, said she’s heard marijuana can help manage her arthritis pain, but she’s resistant to the idea, worried that the drug could “get out of control.”
Bradley imagines there are many who hold such views.
“I think it’s polarizing and it will continue to be polarizing,” Bradley said. “It’s a huge shift in the dynamic on this drug.”
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