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181 vie for Mass. medical marijuana dispensary licenses

Reuters/File 2012

Leaders of New England Treatment Access are counting on strong finances and industry experience in other states to win state approvals for the medical marijuana dispensaries they are planning in Brookline, Northampton, and New Bedford.

Jonathan Napoli, owner of a Roxbury gardening store and founder of The Hempest clothing shops, is hoping meanwhile that his record as a local businessman will help his team secure licenses to operate in Boston, Dennis, and Salem under the name Planting Hope.

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The two groups’ proposals are among 181 applications competing for up to 35 dispensary licenses the state may issue under the medical marijuana law approved by voters in November.

The Department of Public Health released a list of applicants Friday. The pool is varied, including smaller entrepreneurs, some with backing from Massachusetts physicians, and larger-scale operators looking to bring what they have learned in Colorado or New Jersey to the industry in Massachusetts.

The size of the applicant pool “exceeded most people’s expectations,” said Scott Hawkins, who has consulted on medical marijuana around the country and is working with several Massachusetts applicants, including New England Treatment Access.

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Several would-be operators said they expect as many as 2 percent of people in Massachusetts to register for access to medical marijuana, a figure loosely based on the number of customers in Colorado.

That may be an overestimate. Recreational use in Colorado has historically been more common, and Massachusetts officials have pledged tighter regulation of the industry.

Cheryl Bartlett, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, said during a press call Thursday that she expects 1 percent or less to seek the drug.

The dispensaries must follow a seed-to-sale model, growing the large majority of the marijuana products they sell to customers, who must have doctor approvals to use the drug and must register with the state.

In addition to selling the plant, dispensaries must sell devices allowing people to ingest the drug as vapor rather than by smoking.

The shops can also sell edible forms. Napoli, for example, plans to juice raw cannabis, a form he said provides medicinal benefits without the psychoactive effects.

Applicants interviewed Friday were confident that they can prevail in a crowded field.

“There’s a lot of hurdles, but we’re making the progress that we need to move forward,” said Kevin Fisher, president of New England Treatment Access and an owner of Rocky Mountain Remedies in Colorado.

Fisher was recruited to the project by a team led by Arnon Vered, who works for the Kessler Group, a financial services company, and is chief executive of the new nonprofit. Kessler family members have a history of philanthropy in the Massachusetts health care industry, and medical marijuana “is just a new area for the family to be involved in,” Vered said.

His group has the $1.3 million that the state requires for start-up capital — $500,000 for the first location and $400,000 for each additional site — and, with support from the Kesslers, is prepared to invest $8.5 million to get going, he said. If it wins state and local approval, it would create a cultivation facility in a former mill building in New Bedford to supply its three retail sites. Vered said the family also plans to create an educational nonprofit for doctors and patients and may invest in research on the effects of cannabis.

Applicants are not required to provide the state with detailed information about their plans just yet. The first phase of vetting includes a criminal background check and a financial review.

In mid-September, the state will announce which applicants have been cleared for a more detailed review of proposed locations and operations. The applicants must then prove that they have local support.

Napoli has begun attending town and neighborhood meetings. He will ramp up public outreach if his applications clear the first phase of review, he said.

“We know there’s a lot of competition,” he said, “but we feel that our application is strong.”

Regulators may approve no more than five dispensaries in each county. Applications by county ranged from two in Nantucket to 47 in Middlesex. Napoli’s Boston site is one of 21 proposed in Suffolk County.

A panel of Boston public health officials, police, and representatives from other city agencies has been meeting to discuss how to balance the medical marijuana program with neighborhood concerns. Nick Martin, spokesman for the Boston Public Health Commission, said that group will be involved in vetting specific proposals in Boston, though he could not provide details Friday about the process.

Michael Weisser, a businessman, leads another of the applicants. In Colorado, his dispensaries go by the name Rocky Mountain High. For its Massachusetts proposal, his group chose a more conservative moniker: Massachusetts Compassionate Care Corp.

“We bring a professionalism to this business,” said Weisser, who has developed shopping plazas and other commercial real estate in several states and has one of just six dispensary licenses issued in New Jersey. “We operate strictly within the law.”

Weisser’s nonprofit proposed sites in Worcester and Suffolk counties, though he would not say where exactly. Plans can change, he said. His Woodbridge, N.J., dispensary was originally planned for New Brunswick.

Weisser said he has hired the Dewey Square Group to push the proposal and manage local planning. The public affairs firm also lobbied on behalf of the ballot question that created the Massachusetts medical marijuana program.

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@
boston.com
. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.
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