More than two and a half years after Massachusetts voters approved medical marijuana, and a bureaucratic rollout full of controversies and missteps, the historic city of Salem is set to make some modern history as it becomes the first Bay State community with a medical pot dispensary Wednesday.
Alternative Therapies Group at 50 Grove Street has surveillance cameras galore, highly secured entrance including what appears to be a bulletproof reception window, and is in an out-of-the-way mostly ex-industrial area with several abandoned and vacant buildings nearby.
Rick Arroyo runs Rick's Automotive, right across the street from the dispensary. He said Monday he really doesn’t know what or whom to expect.
"It's a pretty good section here, and we've never ever had any problems, so I would like to keep it that way," Arroyo said, adding that he hopes Salem Police will be watching closely Wednesday. "Hopefully, they'll probably step up on their patrols and everything, just to keep it all in check."
Arroyo added that he has no moral or philosophical objection to medical use of marijuana.
One woman who runs a furniture refinishing business right next door to Alternative Therapies and didn't want to go on camera said her only concern is excessive traffic in her parking lot, and if she can be assured of having two reserved parking spaces, she won’t even worry about that. But another businesswoman at the Grove Street complex, who also didn't want to speak publicly, said she's uneasy about an influx of medical marijuana users joining a stream of visitors to an adult social services day center at the brick building.
"I won't be renewing my lease," she said.
ATG officials could not be reached for comment, but Kevin Gilnack, executive director of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association, said the state's new medical marijuana industry knows it's under a microscope here.
"We're going to see a very medicalized, professionalized dispensary there, and they're going to do a good job serving their patients," said Gilnack.
Of course, the only reason the Salem site can open Wednesday is because of an extraordinary waiver issued Friday by gov. Charlie Baker's administration. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health requires pot dispensaries to test for 18 different pesticides, plus evidence of trace metals, and many of the state's maximum-exposure thresholds are 1/40th as high as in other states that allow medical marijuana. Baker's waiver is allowing ATG to open in Salem, selling about 40 percent of the usually allowable two-month doses of pot, because its laboratory could not fully test all the marijuana grown in an Amesbury greenhouse. Patients getting marijuana from ATG starting Wednesday are certifying that they know about and accept these risks.
That it took a gubernatorial waiver, however, to finally get just one of the 35 medical marijuana dispensaries authorized statewide by voters to open is an indication to many that the state testing regime is unreasonable.
"We think there's some major issues there," Gilnack said. "If you look around the country, our testing limits are just incredibly more stringent than what any other state's done. So we're looking forward to working with DPH to get that fixed."
"We knew there would be bumps along the road," Gilnack said. "We're just thrilled that the first dispensary is going to be opening up."
However, it's far from clear how soon how many more dispensaries will open, and where. According to the most recent update on this state listing, just two other dispensaries – in Brockton and Northampton – are even in the process of being inspected for an authorization to sell medical marijuana, and just 15 dispensaries total have received provisional certifications for future operations.
With videographer Eric Anderson