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Medical marijuana hopefuls eyeing possible dispensary sites

Her son was just 2 years old when Karen Munkacy was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. The 47-year-old moved into her in-laws’ house in New Jersey, where she spent nearly a year on her back, enduring four months of chemotherapy, 28 radiation treatments, a double mastectomy, pain, and near-constant nausea.

A doctor, Munkacy knew the benefits of medical marijuana, but she also knew that it was illegal.

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“I am a law-abiding person. I had a choice: I could suffer more than I needed to, or I could break the law. I chose to suffer,” Munkacy said. “I really didn’t want other people to have to make that choice.”

Nine years later, Munkacy is cancer free, and hoping to open a medical marijuana dispensary in her hometown of Newton, as well as in two other locations.

With help from her family, she put up $1.3 million and filed applications for three Garden Remedies Inc. sites with the state, which last week released a full list of all 181 applicants vying for the 35 licenses potentially available across Massachusetts.

As the field of candidates for licenses takes shape, cities and towns are finalizing zoning rules and public consumption regulations that will determine where, exactly, dispensaries may set up shop. Under the medical marijuana law approved by voters in November, the Department of Public Health may issue at least one but no more than five dispensary licenses in each of the state’s 14 counties.

“I think people are getting ready for it,” said Moe Handel, a Needham selectman. “I think people understand that it’s the will of the voters, and a lot of people understand that there is a medical use for marijuana.”

Needham is one of many municipalities that passed a moratorium on awarding any permits for a dispensary, to give officials more time to work out local regulations. The town is working on zoning rules as well as a bylaw that would ban marijuana use in public.

Other communities, such as Newton, are hoping to decide on zoning amendments by the middle of next month, when applicants who make it through the first phase of the vetting process, which includes a criminal background check and financial review, will be seeking specific locations for their proposed dispensaries.

“What we’re trying to figure out is: Do we need more time to get things properly set up so that if and when a place comes, we’ve got places where it’s suitable to site?” said Newton’s health commissioner, Dori Zaleznik, who said six or seven groups have approached the city with plans for opening a dispensary in the community. “We don’t have a moratorium, but we haven’t precluded doing it.”

Framingham’s Town Meeting voters turned down a proposed moratorium in May. Local officials are working to finalize an overlay district that would specify where dispensaries could set up shop, said Town Manager Robert Halpin; the final proposal will go before Special Town Meeting in October.

Middlesex County, which includes Newton and Framingham, received 47 license applications; Norfolk County, which includes Needham, received 12. Elsewhere, applications ranged from two in Nantucket County to 21 in Suffolk County, which consists of Boston and three nearby communities.

Some cities and towns have been less than enthusiastic about welcoming dispensaries. Early this year, a handful of municipalities including Melrose, Reading, and Wakefield adopted bans, citing concerns about substance abuse, crime, and declining property values, before the attorney general’s office in March ruled that bans were not allowed. Wakefield is appealing the ruling, and Melrose and Reading are considering moratoriums.

But others have taken the opposite tack.

In Ayer, a Middlesex County community of just over 7,400 people, the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Health wrote letters to the state Department of Public Health in support of local businessman John Hillier, who hopes to open Central Avenue Compassionate Care Inc. not far from the center of town.

“I equate it in my mind to a drugstore,” said Selectman James Fay. “I think it is a very logical thing to do. There are people in need, it is doctor prescribed, all the controls are going to be in place before the licenses are issued. I actually told [Hillier] I am glad he chose Ayer as a location, because that’s another business that helps generate economic development.”

Hillier, who hopes to have a marijuana-growing site as well as the dispensary in Ayer, said he did a lot of public outreach to get the community on board, by attending hearings, sending direct mailings, and holding open houses at the proposed location.

“I see it like a single-drug pharmacy with the security of a bank,” he said. Residents were receptive to his idea. The town, Hillier said, “really proved to be compassionate, sophisticated, and forward thinking, realizing what this can do and where it can go.”

Still, some applicants said they have encountered banks that will not lend to them, insurance companies that will not insure them, and real estate companies that will not show them properties.

“You’re doing something new here. As a result, there’s a lot of ambiguity,” said Fotis Loulourgas, who with his team applied for a Norfolk County license to open up G2 New England Inc., and has a conditional lease for a building in Randolph.

He said his group has $1 million in capital, double the state’s minimum requirement, and hopes to open a combination growing site and dispensary that would use solar energy to help power grow lights, and electric cars to deliver the medical marijuana to patients who cannot pick it up. The team is looking into the viability of using an ancient growing system that uses fish, not chemicals, to fertilize the plants, he said.

G2 would use surplus revenue to support veterans and children’s charities, Loulourgas said, and has put together financial assistance plans for low-income patients. “We want to give back,” he said.

For Munkacy, opening a marijuana dispensary would help close the circle on her own suffering.

The Newton resident was declared in remission in 2005, and once her strength returned and her hair grew back, she began researching medical marijuana and advocating for its legalization. She quit practicing medicine several years ago to focus full time on advocacy.

She has filed applications for two dispensaries in Middlesex County and one in Suffolk County, but said the only location she is sure of is Newton.

“I live here; I raised my son here,” said Munkacy. “It sends a message that this is something that I’m not trying to do far away from where I live.”

If Garden Remedies is granted licenses, Munkacy said, her dispensary will make the medical marijuana available at reduced prices or for free for patients who could not afford to buy it.

“I know this will help a lot of patients,” she said. “And I want to make sure it’s done properly.”

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.
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