The road to medical marijuana in Bellmawr

Posted: September 16, 2013

When a small group of businesspeople approached him about opening a medical-marijuana dispensary last year, the longtime Camden County mayor was suspicious.

Bellmawr Mayor Frank Filipek had already shooed away another group of entrepreneurs who came to him with similar plans two years earlier. "I was leery, and still am. It's marijuana," he said, noting its abuse is a problem in schools.

So why did he change his mind? And how did the tiny borough end up embracing Compassionate Sciences' plans to grow and sell marijuana? Many other New Jersey communities, after all, had shunned this type of business in deference to residents' fears of increased crime and "potheads" and "addicts" hanging out in their neighborhood.

In contrast, the neighbors of the Bellmawr dispensary - which is being built inside a former T-shirt printing plant in an industrial area - say they didn't find out about the business until recently, after renovations began. They had not heard the planning board unanimously approved it more than nine months ago.

"They hid it, shush-shush, because they were afraid of repercussions from the public," said Jerry Downing, who owns a flooring and kitchens business behind the planned cultivation center. William Statter, a North Jersey pharmacy owner, issued a news release Aug. 29 announcing the dispensary's location. He anticipates a clientele of up to 3,000 patients. He still needs state approvals to cultivate and sell.

In 2011, Statter and other principals faced fireworks at a Maple Shade planning board meeting when they unveiled their plans to open a dispensary in a vacated furniture store.

But in Bellmawr, no one showed up to complain.

"I don't remember anyone from the public being there," planning board chairman Carl Klese said, recalling the dispensary's presentation at a November 2012 meeting. The matter was listed on the agenda, which is always available for review at borough hall, but was not publicized beyond that, he said.

In Maple Shade, the mayor and others "did a big outreach" to the public, said Andrei Bogolubov, the dispensary's spokesman. "It became like a cross-examination." They tried to explain, he said, the dispensary will have 24-hour video surveillance and will sell only to "very sick" registered patients with a doctor's approval.

Elsewhere in the state, other dispensary owners were also facing crowds.

Compassionate Care Foundation, which soon will open a dispensary in Egg Harbor Township, in Atlantic County, was among them. Initially it had planned to open in Bellmawr, but moved on after Filipek said he was against it. The dispensary found a new site in Westampton, Burlington County, where welcoming officials reversed themselves when protesters appeared.

Bill Thomas, CEO of that dispensary, filed a lawsuit, saying it had a legal right to open there. He withdrew it when an Egg Harbor businessman offered warehouse space that had approvals in place.

Town officials stepped aside, saying a public hearing was not necessary. The mayor said he had to follow the law and anticipates no problems there.

Bellmawr officials followed this model when Compassionate Sciences came knocking. Filipek said borough lawyers told him the dispensary required no special permission to open. "There's nothing I could do to stop it," he said. He wanted to avoid possible litigation.

The lawyers also told him the neighbors did not need to be notified, as they must when a business plan is outside the scope of the zoning code.

Filipek said Statter and other principals spent hours meeting with him, the police chief, council and board members and addressed all their concerns. "People don't just come off the street to get the marijuana," he said. "There are strict regulations. . . . People need this for their health."

Bogolubov the dispensary spokesman, said the nonprofit decided after the Maple Shade experience to spend time "making people comfortable." He also said they reached out "to the right people" and held frank discussions to overcome the "stigma of marijuana," which is now legal for medical purposes in 21 states.

Police Chief Bill Walsh said the security measures were adequate. Besides, he said, the drug is low-potency, unlike the illegal variety, so "people won't be congregating" there.


 


Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," at www.inquirer.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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