Even without cannabis on the agenda, the Boston City Council is a place of smoke and mirrors. Add a mild hallucinogen and it gets harder to tell where truth ends and political posturing begins.
That was the main takeaway from a long, strange public hearing held by city councilors last Tuesday, regarding provisional licenses granted by the state for two medical marijuana dispensaries in Boston.
Massachusetts voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2012. But deciding where to distribute the drug turns out to be a lot like deciding where casinos should go. In theory, people support both. But few people want one in their backyard, as city councilors are discovering.
The council hearing was called after questions were raised about how carefully the state Department of Public Health vetted the applications for honesty about the level of community support for specific sites. However, no state official showed up to answer them.
Cheryl Bartlett, the state’s public health commissioner, was invited, but did not attend or respond to the invitation, according to Jessica Tauber, chief of staff to Councilor Ayanna Pressley, whose committee officially hosted the hearing. DPH spokesman David Kibbe said Bartlett was not part of the dispensary decision process and was traveling at the time of the hearing.
But applicants for both Boston sites did attend, and one of the groups showed signs of swift surrender to community concerns about crime, patient security, and other potential problems linked to the marijuana business.
Reacting to an onslaught of criticism over a proposed dispensary on upscale Boylston Street, representatives from Good Chemistry, the Massachusetts offshoot of a Denver-based dispensary, told councilors they are considering an alternative location. They declined to disclose where that might be, but said they want to go where they are welcome.
Meanwhile, the top executive for Green Heart Holistic Health & Pharmaceuticals, which wants to put a dispensary along a troubled stretch of Southampton Street in Roxbury, is not giving up. “Let’s partner together and make this location work,” Andrew DeAngelo, Green Heart’s executive director, told councilors.
However, when it comes to the dispensaries, his would-be municipal partners are showing signs of the ambivalence that comes with hearing from unhappy constituents. Several councilors said they personally voted to legalize medical marijuana, and recognize the need for it, but now question the locations chosen for distribution.
Green Heart contends it had support from Councilor Tito Jackson, but Jackson insists that he never endorsed a dispensary for 70 Southampton Street. The surrounding area, near the Boston Medical Center, is already home to a county jail, a trash transfer facility, and three methadone clinics. In light of what is already there, the community philosophy isn’t “not in my backyard,” said Jackson at the hearing. It’s that it can’t be “all in my backyard.”
Councilor Stephen J. Murphy even signed a letter on behalf of Good Chemistry. But after Back Bay neighborhood activists kicked up a fuss, Murphy said he was misled by a representative who didn’t tell him the facility was slated for Boylston Street.
Murphy frankly seemed mostly concerned about the fate of the local consulting team that was initially hired by Green Heart to reach out to him. “Two guys from California would not get through my front door unless someone I knew brought you in,” Murphy told DeAngelo and consultant Scott Hawkins, who both hail from Oakland, Calif.
Explaining that he’s now local and renting an apartment in the South End, DeAngelo said, “My only complaint is the weather. It’s so cold. I’ve never been that cold in my life.” It could soon get even chillier for DeAngelo. The Boston Herald reported that his brother, Stephen DeAngelo, who would finance the Southampton Street facility, pleaded guilty to marijuana possession with intent to distribute in 2001 — information that was not part of DeAngelo’s initial application to the state.
The state has the power to grant licenses, but the city controls zoning. Before Boston gives the go-ahead for a medical marijuana dispensary at any particular site, proponents must show community support, city officials told the council. City councilors wanted to ask state officials how that process will play out, but no one was there to explain.
There’s no binding local vote, as there is with casinos. So it will be up to community activists to make themselves heard and make sure the politicians stand up for the poorer part of town, not just the prosperous one.