Riverhead oncologist Louis Avvento discusses the need for medical marijuana during the Oct. 22 town board work session, as residents James "Butch" Langhorn and Kiesha Washington-Dean look on. RiverheadLOCAL photo: Denise Civiletti

The move to impose a moratorium on the establishment of a medical marijuana dispensary in Riverhead came to a contentious end today, with residents opposed to a new location for the facility making an angry exit from the town hall meeting room after a majority of the board agreed they would not support the moratorium.

“That’s really, really nice to do this at campaign time, Sean — and you, too, Ms. Giglio,” Kiesha Washington-Dean said to Supervisor Sean Walter and Councilwoman Jodi Giglio right after the supervisor polled the board to see how many members would vote for the moratorium.

Washington-Dean and James “Butch” Langhorn attended today’s meeting in the hope of convincing the board to require Columbia Care to find another new location for the dispensary than an East Main Street medical office building owned by a longtime oncologist, Dr. Louis Avvento. They argue that siting the dispensary there would have a negative effect on the Millbrook Gables community, which has struggled for decades to overcome drug activity and drug-related crime.

“We’ve been working very hard to clean up Millbrook Gables, 821 and Doctors Path,” Washington-Dean said.

“Gables goes back to Ricky’s days and pot and problems. You cleaned that place up and now you want to bring something back there that may possibly bring it back down again,” Langhorn said.

“We spent a lot of money there cleaning that place up and now all of a sudden you can’t find somebody here, you can’t find somebody there that’s going to accept it, so you’re just going to plop it somewhere else, a place where you cleaned up — maybe not totally, but you did a helluva job. That’s what we’re fighting for,” Langhorn said.

“This is different than recreational marijuana, this is medical marijuana. It’s different. It’s apples and oranges,” Councilman John Dunleavy said.

After a heated back-and-forth discussion with Washington-Dean and Langhorn, a board majority declined to insist that the location search continue and also declined to support a proposed moratorium.

Columbia Care, one of five companies granted state licenses to grow and dispense the drug, originally intended to site the dispensary — Suffolk County’s only location — in the long-vacant former Blockbuster Video store on Route 58. The board, citing traffic concerns and the location’s proximity to Riverhead High School, objected.

During a Sept. 16 public hearing on the moratorium, where the board heard more than two hours of testimony mostly from patients and their family members begging the board not to adopt a moratorium, PBMC Health president and CEO Andrew Mitchell volunteered to mediate discussions between Columbia Care and the town board to find a location “that works for everybody.”

Mitchell’s efforts led to Avvento’s medical office building, where an eye doctor had recently vacated space.

“As the hospital leader and de facto public health spokesperson for the town,
I was asked to come up with a location that would tie this to a medical office area and that’s what I think I accomplished here,” Mitchell said.

“Since medical marijuana and medical oncology are so tied together, it seemed to make sense to locate the dispensary next to Riverhead’s largest oncology practice,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell brought Columbia Care and Avvento together.

Avvento today said there’s a strong need for medical marijuana in the community. It is an effective treatment for “intractable nausea, nerve pain and intractable neuropathy” for which there is no other effective treatment, he said.

Columbia Care CEO Nicholas Vita said his company was happy with the new location. He said in his experience the introduction of a “highly regulated medical marijuana dispensary that has the added complement of additional security infrastructure,” the general condition of the neighborhood improves.

“The crime rate goes down,” Vita said. He said his company would be moving forward with the lease and readying the premises for the dispensary, which state regulations require to be operational by Jan 1.

Langhorn and Washington-Dean left the meeting frustrated and disappointed, convinced that a medical marijuana dispensary will reverse progress made in Millbrook Gables over the years.

“Eventually they’re going to be stealing… Drug addicts, you know how addicts are, Langhorn said after the meeting, “they’re going to try any way they can to get it and that’s going to bring the community down again.”

“I don’t have a problem with a dispensary,” he said. “I have a problem with where they’re putting it . They’re putting it in a black community where … it’s taken 50 years to get it even three-quarters clean.”

Washington-Dean was angered by the outcome of the meeting as well as its conduct, which included people talking simultaneously and the eruption of a brief shouting match between the supervisor and South Jamesport civic activist and 2013 Democratic supervisor candidate Angela DeVito — and then between Walter and Washington-Dean.

“I’m going to make sure I walk my neighborhoods to make sure they don’t get the vote,” Wasington-Dean said after the meeting, referring to Walter and Giglio.

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