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Brookline dispensary site stirs debate

BROOKLINE — More than 100 Brookline residents attended a public hearing Tuesday evening to express concern over a proposal that would place a medical marijuana dispensary in the heart of Brookline Village.

But if anyone expected fireworks over the pros or cons of marijuana use or stereotypes about who uses marijuana, they would have been disappointed. Instead, debate centered mostly around the wisdom of the location, with fewer questions and cautions about marijuana use and possession.

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Kevin Fisher, executive director of New England Treatment Access Inc., a company with Colorado roots that plans to open and operate the dispensary, set the tone early by making clear that the company has already received provisional licenses and permits from both the Commonwealth and the town of Brookline, and has every intention to not just open a dispensary soon, but to open in the building where the public hearing took place — the historic Brookline Savings Bank Building on Washington Street.

And while Fisher was peppered with dozens of questions, most were about the logistics of the location itself, traffic, and parking at an already congested intersection where there are few off-street spaces.

Fisher said that the building’s façade would not be altered but that the interior would be upgraded with modern touches and security measures, including a locked outer lobby where all entrants would have to show state identification before being allowed inside.

He also said that nearby curbside metered parking would not be overwhelmed because the dispensary would have 14 off-street parking spaces available. And he said the dispensary plans to encourage and provide incentives for employees to take public transportation.

Still, most residents who questioned Fisher expressed skepticism about the suitability of the location and questioned whether patrons would overrun quiet neighboring residential streets.

One woman quoted from the minutes of a recent Board of Selectmen meeting, in which selectmen said the dispensary’s set-up and operation were being misunderstood and that there should not be any worry that it would land in a free-standing building like the empty Brookline Savings Bank building.

Financial adviser Gordon Bennett challenged an independent traffic study Fisher cited that estimated that during peak hours just eight of the facility’s 14 parking spots should be needed at any given time to accommodate customer-patients.

With the dispensary set to be open seven days per week and nine hours per day, and with so few other dispensaries planned for neighboring communities, the Brookline Bank building location was likely to bring increased traffic from marijuana users who live in other cities and towns, Bennett said.

Julie Hayes, who said she lives near the old bank building, told Fisher she was concerned that the dispensary would be within a half-mile of seven schools and nine parks and playgrounds. Hayes also questioned why the dispensary was not being planned for a medical facility, rather than an empty bank, and why Brookline?

Several people who identified themselves as medical doctors pointed out the Massachusetts Medical Society opposed the medical marijuana bill when it was first proposed. And some said that the medical facilities where they work had no intention of prescribing medical marijuana to patients.

Dr. Chris Smith, a physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, did not speak at the hearing but said afterward that he shares his neighbors’ concerns.

“This is a historic building, and it’s a fair question as to whether this is the best use for it,” Smith said. “Also, I live in the neighborhood. My daughter goes to Brookline public schools. We already have a parking problem in the neighborhood because of people going to local businesses nearby. So traffic is already a nightmare.

“It is interesting that most physicians have not embraced medical marijuana. I’m not opposed to the idea, but it should be put somewhere that makes more sense — in a building that already houses medical facilities, that already has full disability access, where there wouldn’t be an automatic parking concern, and where it wouldn’t be adding more traffic necessarily.”

Fisher defended the location, pointing out that it is fully compliant with the law that forbids drug possession within 500 feet of schools, and arguing that New England Treatment Access has tried other locations that were either too small or too close to schools and playgrounds.

As for why the dispensary is being planned for Brookline, Fisher answered: “It is where we’re licensed.” The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has also licensed New England Treatment Access to open a second dispensary in Northampton.

The Kessler Family Foundation encouraged New England Treatment Access to set up shop in Massachusetts too, Fisher said. The New Jersey-based public charity’s website describes it as being “dedicated to improving the lives of people with physical and cognitive disabilities caused by stroke, multiple sclerosis, injuries to the brain and spinal cord, and other chronic conditions.”

“The Kessler Family Foundation has been very supportive of medical marijuana programs,” Fisher said.

“Massachusetts is going to be the place, we hope, where we begin seeing far more mainstream cooperation from the medical community.”

In the end, Fisher took the heat but hinted politely that New England Treatment Access was not going anywhere.

One resident at Tuesday’s meeting was an unabashed supporter of medical marijuana dispensaries and said it is about time New England Treatment Access’s facility came to fruition in Brookline.

Richard Brawley said he first saw the benefits of dispensaries when his father, who lived in Maine, was diagnosed in December 2012 with throat cancer.

“There was really no time to spare for my father . . . ,” Brawley said. “My father passed away this April, but I was glad and comforted to know he made good use of the dispensaries in Maine and their treatments to relieve his symptoms.”

Brawley’s wife suffers from worsening multiple sclerosis, he said, so they welcome the notion of a dispensary close to their home.

“In that unlikely event you or a family member needs the treatments offered by a dispensary, wouldn’t you feel better knowing that there is the option of a well-regulated and safe place to obtain treatments?” he asked.

And if there was any question as to the town of Brookline’s position, the first comment from Dr. Alan Balsam, director of public health, was: “I support the use of medical marijuana.”

Balsam cautioned that while he supports medical marijuana use he does not support smoking marijuana. The dispensary would be encouraging patients to use vaporizers, salves, and edibles, like baked goods, containing marijuana.

Some may choose to smoke the drug, Balsam said, but the town will have a four-person peer leadership team working to discourage minors from experimenting with drugs, legal or otherwise.

Balsam said that 25 years ago he was one of the founders of Community Servings, the Jamaica Plain-based meal service and nutrition charity that feeds chronically ill people.

“We started Community Servings to help care for victims of AIDS because it was so devastating at the time,” he said.

Balsam compared Community Servings’ early mission with that of medical marijuana dispensaries.

“Many people get relief from their symptoms by using marijuana,” he said. “And sick people should not have to break the law to get relief.”

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@
globe.com
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