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Akron might be hanging Ohio’s first official 'open for business' sign for medical marijuana

By Doug Livingston • Updated Apr 17, 2017 at 9:00 PM

With Statehouse lawmakers greenlighting medical marijuana, Akron might be hanging Ohio’s first official “open for business” sign.

Other large cities and even smaller villages have welcomed growers and processors, the first in a chain of new businesses that will cultivate, test, package and sell marijuana to Ohio patients beginning in September 2018.

Wilmington and Painesville are working on deals for indoor, hydroponic grow facilities promising hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in investment. A Johnstown manufacturer hopes to start using its weed-oil extraction process in the central Ohio village where it’s located.

But none of these municipalities has set up local rules that detail specifically where growers, dispensers, testing labs and processing plants can open. Akron may be the first.

Akron’s five-member planning commission recently approved a recommendation from city planners to conditionally zone commercial property for medical marijuana facilities. Activity would be prohibited within 500 feet of schools, churches, public parks, libraries and playgrounds. Like pharmacies and other businesses, dispensaries will be banned from residential neighborhoods.

The drug, as it is in most other states, will be recommended — not prescribed — by a doctor to treat 20 conditions, including cancer, seizures, chronic pain, AIDS, Alzeimer’s disease, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and multiple sclerosis. Sales, unlike prescription drugs, will be taxed.

Initially, the state will permit 24 grow sites, 40 processing facilities and 60 dispensaries. More may open later across the state after assessing supply and demand.

While cities can ban the industry, none can stop patients from possessing a 90-day supply — 6 ounces of plant material with up to 23 percent THC or 4 ounces with up to 35 percent concentration.

On the forefront

“Marijuana is going to be in Akron because the state law says it can be,” said Ellen Lander Nischt, legal counsel to the mayor. Now, it’s just a matter of whether the city can safely capitalize on the jobs and income taxes the industry might bring.

There will be no fields of cannabis. The drug must be cared for indoors. Akron’s zoning law would allow City Council to block facilities that might emit a strong cannabis odor.

The city’s economic developers have heard from medical marijuana businesses expressing interest in Akron, but there are no firm proposals at this point. Most await the state’s approval of licensing rules for cultivators and processors.

Aside from having local control, being the first to map out permissible zoning and establishing local licensing rules could give investors more stability in a heavily regulated industry, making Akron fertile ground for medical marijuana businesses.

Open for business

The most common governmental response to medical marijuana has been to slam on the brakes until municipal rules are set.

Prospective businesses must get local permission before obtaining a state license from the Department of Commerce. The first applications are expected in June.

Ohio’s Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review has yet to sign off on Ohio’s new law. Lawmakers legalized medical marijuana in 2016 to avoid a second attempt by private investors and a public campaign to legalize the drug for recreational, not just medical, use.

Most Ohio cities, towns and villages have responded by banning any activity.

“In my opinion, I hope [the moratoriums] stay in place, because that will make us more competitive,” said Jim Lenner, village manager of Johns­town. Lenner hopes to have local legislation in place by the end of April, with the goal of helping Apeks Supercritical, a local company that ships oil-extracting equipment to other states, employ more at home.

Progress in Akron

Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan signed a one-year moratorium in September. If and when City Council sets local rules, the moratorium would end months ahead of schedule to allow for construction of grow sites, testing labs and processing centers before they go live next year.

The mayor was set to introduce licensing requirements Monday. Public hearings on the zoning restrictions will be held at a regular council meeting May 1 at 7 p.m.

A map of Akron illustrates permissible areas for medical marijuana facilities in green. The bulk of the permissibly zoned land stretches from Akron Fulton Airport up to Chapel Hill or is clustered east of Firestone headquarters, around Gilchrist Road industrial corridor or sprinkled throughout the city.

Other cities’ plans

“We don’t have anything that has that type of detail on maps for where these facilities can be located,” said Lynn White, city planner for Painesville, where Grow Orchard has proposed building a $265,000 cultivation facility on 5.84 acres of city land.

Painesville is treating any upcoming mar­ijuana businesses like it does manufacturers looking for land in the city. No local rules are expected.

In Wilmington, Council­man Matt Purkey said the city is waiting for the state to adopt more definite rules, probably by May 6.

Then, Purkey and colleagues on council will do the same as Akron before the applications arrive in June.

Purkey said Cann­Ascend Ohio, a company run by businessmen who backed the failed 2015 legalization campaign, has asked to build a 25,000-square-foot grow facility on a 19.2-acre field in Wilmington. Not counting construction, Purkey said the company would employ about 220 employees.

Some tax incentives may be offered, Purkey said. Ohio’s heavily regulated medical marijuana industry includes additional costs from state and local fees and taxes. Still, Purkey said Cann­Ascend’s business plan could expand the marijuana campus to 75,000 square feet, adding up to 300 paychecks in a town decimated by the loss of manufacturing and shipping jobs.

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©2017 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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