Cancer patients and survivors. Parents of children with epilepsy. Sufferers of traumatic brain injury, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome.

For more than two emotional hours, a long line of people waited their turn at the podium to plead with town board members not to block a proposed medical marijuana dispensary on Route 58.

The town board is considering the town-wide, one-year ban on a dispensary to study its potential impacts – especially at its proposed location at the former Blockbuster Video site, which several board members say is too close to the high school and located on a road that is already too busy for what would be the county’s only dispensary.

But the dozens of protesters who turned out at Town Hall last night all came with the same message: any longer of a wait would be too long for the patients in need of a life-saving, life-changing medication.

“I don’t want to wait anymore,” said Donna Schwier, a registered nurse who suffers from fibromyalgia, a debilitating condition that leaves her in daily chronic pain. “If you had one day to experience what I experience  – just one day – to waste anymore time in getting this medication to us is totally unfair. I’m tired of being in pain every day.”

Dozens of protesters with "I support compassionate care" signs and buttons attended the public hearing last night. Photo: Katie Blasl
Dozens of protesters with “I support compassionate care” signs and buttons attended the public hearing last night. Photo: Katie Blasl

As per state law, medical marijuana will be available only in non-smokable forms, such as pills or liquids. It will only be prescribed to patients with a select few conditions, like fibromyalgia, cancer, HIV/AIDS, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and multiple sclerosis, among others.

Columbia Care, which would operate the proposed dispensary, is one of only five medical marijuana growers that have been licensed by the state to grow and sell the highly restricted drug. Its dispensary in Riverhead would be the only one in Suffolk County, and one of only two on Long Island.

Felicia Scocozza, director of drug and alcohol prevention organization Riverhead CAP, was the sole voice in support of the ban. In addition to the concerns she has raised about a dispensary’s impact on teenagers’ attitudes toward marijuana, she argued that a dispensary would be better located elsewhere in Suffolk County, in a town that uses Suffolk County police and emergency services and would therefore benefit from the county’s 22.5-percent share of a 7-percent state excise tax on medical marijuana sales at the dispensary

“The Riverhead Town Board has an obligation to the citizens of Riverhead,” she told the town board in an emotional speech. “The town is under no obligation to everyone in Suffolk County who may meet the criteria of this law, no matter how much compassion you feel.”

The former Blockbuster Video site, located on Route 58 across from Target, is currently vacant. Photo: Peter Blasl
The former Blockbuster Video site, located on Route 58 across from Target, is currently vacant. Photo: Peter Blasl

Town Supervisor Sean Walter, who has repeatedly called medical marijuana the “incremental legalization of pot,” also insisted that a moratorium would be instituted to deter the dispensary from opening in its proposed location, rather than any resistance to the medication itself.

“Just as you don’t put a gas station next to certain businesses, we need to think about where we would put something like this,” he told the audience of protesters, who loudly objected at the analogy.

But many who spoke in support of the dispensary did not seem to believe him.

“[Route 58] is the regional shopping center of the town and the region,” said Vince Taldone, Riverhead resident. “There needs to be no traffic study on the impacts on the regional shopping center that we have intentionally created. This is a pharmacy. The only reason to pass a moratorium is to make a political statement that you don’t like that the state has made this legal.”

Walter repeatedly misrepresented state law in his comments, insisting the state requires a dispensary to be more than 1,000 feet away from a school. That requirement, however, only applies to a dispensary located on the same street as a school, which the former Blockbuster site is not. When someone asked him why in that case the dispensary’s application had been approved by the state, Walter responded that “New York State doesn’t check over Riverhead.”

“Our decision is solely where is the appropriate place for this,” he said. “We have asked Columbia Care to look at other locations, which they haven’t really done.”

Andrew Mitchell, president and CEO of Peconic Bay Medical Center, offered to mediate a solution between Columbia Care and the town. Photo: Katie Blasl
Andrew Mitchell, president and CEO of PBMC Health, offered to mediate a solution between Columbia Care and the town. Photo: Katie Blasl

But thanks to PBMC Health, a resolution to the dispute may be on the horizon.

PBMC president and CEO Andrew Mitchell has offered to mediate discussions between Columbia Care, the medical marijuana manufacturer authorized by the state to open the dispensary in Riverhead, and the town board to find a location “that works for everybody.”

Both Columbia Care and town board members agreed to meet with Mitchell for a discussion.

At the public hearing last night, Columbia Care representatives emphasized the aggressive security measures it would take to protect the site, including 24-hour monitored cameras and above-adequate lighting.

“The intense security that we will be putting up will make it actually safer for people in this area,” said Michael Abbott, executive chairman of Columbia Care. “We’ll have spent a six-figure sum just on security, so that there will be live eyes every minute of every day of every year on this facility and on a huge surrounding area.”

Michael Abbott, executive chairman, and Nicholas Vita, CEO of Columbia Care, which was approved by the state to site a medical marijuana dispensary in Riverhead. Photo: Denise Civiletti
Michael Abbott, executive chairman, and Nicholas Vita, CEO of Columbia Care, negotiated with town board members at a work session earlier this month. File photo: Denise Civiletti

They also insisted that their company has no interest in transitioning to a recreational marijuana dispensary, should such a thing become legal in New York State, and repeated their offer to covenant that they would never sell recreational drugs from the location.

“If this moratorium passes, we’re going to have to look at other options,” Abbott said, “which would be very sad for the community here.”

The town board will accept written comment on the subject until September 25.

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Katie, winner of the 2016 James Murphy Cub Reporter of the Year award from the L.I. Press Club, is a co-publisher of RiverheadLOCAL. A Riverhead native, she is a 2014 graduate of Stony Brook University. Email Katie