Philly City Council members want to restrict conversion of medical marijuana dispensaries for future recreational use
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Two Philadelphia City Council members — Republican Brian J. O’Neill and Democrat Curtis Jones Jr. — are moving to block existing medical marijuana dispensaries in their districts from switching to recreational sales in future.
The proposed legislation would cover parts of Northeast, West, and Northwest Philadelphia and dictates that medical marijuana dispensaries “shall not include a person authorized to dispense marijuana for recreational or other non-medical purposes.”
O’Neill and Jones said that when the medical marijuana distributors in their districts met with neighborhood groups, they swore that they wouldn’t sell recreational products.
“They have operated in a fairly good way on the medical side: no complaints, no crowds, no robberies,” Jones said. “Now everybody wants to safeguard their right to transfer to recreational. But if you look at what retail brings, it’s a different customer base, a different threat.”
While recreational marijuana is not allowed in Pennsylvania, O’Neill, who represents Far Northeast Philadelphia, said his allies in Harrisburg have told him legalization is probably coming.
“With a new governor and a new legislature, it will happen in the next one to three years from what everybody I talked to in Harrisburg is saying,” O’Neill said.
The Pennsylvania Cannabis Coalition is contesting the Council members’ legislation, with their president Jamie Ware calling it “disastrous” for existing operations that have already sunk millions into security infrastructure and face steep state regulatory hurdles if they want to move.
There are three medical marijuana distributors in Jones’ district and two in O’Neill’s district.
At a City Council hearing Wednesday, Ware argued that the legislation would put these existing operators at a disadvantage to both future legal entrants to the market and illegal operators.
“Allowing the 16 current operators in Philadelphia the ability to operate adult use, when the time comes, will help keep people in these neighborhoods from purchasing from the illegal market,” Ware said. “This bill ... puts five of 16 dispensaries at a serious competitive disadvantage, just for locating their businesses in [these] councilmanic districts.”
O’Neill argues that the legislation is just meant to force the existing distributors to meet with community groups again if they try to start selling recreational products.
Many Philadelphia City Council members have long favored a theory, unusual in other jurisdictions, that activities barred under the zoning code do not constitute a hard ban. Applicants can seek variances or special exceptions from the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which is more liberal in its rulings in favor of applicants than its counterparts elsewhere — at least if there isn’t community or Council opposition.
Before cases reach a hearing, however, they must meet with the local registered community organization. The community group can then support or oppose them at the zoning hearing, which is not determinative but can sway the board’s opinion.
Marijuana advocates argue that a trip to the zoning board is no simple matter, incurring legal fees and adding uncertainty to the process. In recent years the burden has only grown greater as wait times ballooned during the pandemic to over half a year before many cases are heard.
If opponents are determined to fight a proposal, cases can drag on for years.
A spokesman for the zoning board did not immediately respond to a request for comment on steps being taken to ameliorate the wait times, but O’Neill said he has heard that change is in the offing.
“I’m confident that they’re getting that under control,” said O’Neill. “I’ve been told that if there is no opposition, they’re moving cases [on to an expedited track]. They won’t be penalized in the same way as the ones that are fighting the neighborhood.”
The cannabis limitation legislation faces only a final vote, likely to come next Thursday at City Council’s last session before summer recess. The bill falls squarely within the tradition of councilmanic prerogative, where the whole Council votes in favor of a land use or streets bill in a district member’s territory.
As a result, the bill is all but certain to pass.
Published June 20, 2023
By Jake Blumgart