Published in the February 9, 2017 edition

By Bill Laforme

NORTH READING – Selectmen narrowly voted to reject a nonprofit group’s effort to open a medical marijuana facility in town, largely because of the various shortcomings and red flags that came up involving the group itself.

Since the beginning of the year, the Cardiac Arrythmia Syndrome Foundation

had been working with selectmen on its proposed facility, on issues ranging from security and police concerns to potential revenue deals with the town. Specifically, the group had been requesting a letter of non-opposition from town officials, which would have allowed it to continue its permitting process with the state’s Department of Public Health. Foundation representatives report that they want to use proceeds from medical marijuana facilities, including two they have under development in Somerville and Cambridge, to fund children’s heart screenings. The founder of the nonprofit, Jane Vining, lost her son to a sudden cardiac event, as well as a daughter to an overdose – something she explained at a previous selectmen’s meeting had made her very skeptical as well about medical marijuana at the outset.

A revenue sharing deal with the town would have provided 4% of the facility’s first $3 million in sales, and 3% thereafter, with foundation representatives eyeing about $15 million in annual sales. Some other cash payments, apparently starting at $37,500 twice a year would have started in the present fiscal year, selectmen Steven O’Leary explained early in the hearing. Later, he said that a review of other similar deals, the foundation seemed to be offering “one of the more favorable ones for a community.” O’Leary, along with fellow Selectman Jeffrey Yull, had spent the past couple of weeks trying to work out a “very comprehensive” deal with the group should the board have granted their request.

Before the letter could be issued however, selectmen had numerous questions about the group’s potential links to a for-profit corporation, its tax filings, and its overall organizational abilities. At the same time, selectmen also generally praised the foundation for a good faith effort to try to work with the town.

At a previous meeting, selectmen had expressed concern that Vining’s husband, David Vining, was a convicted felon who had been linked in press reports to the foundation. State law prohibits convicted felons from being involved in the medical marijuana industry. Town officials were also dismayed in some cases that they found some red flags simply by looking up the foundation on Google, instead of hearing about the issues up front. For their part, foundation officials maintained that Vining is not one of their officers, and noted that the state’s DPH had accepted their explanation last summer. Another potential red flag was the foundation’s relationship with an apparently now-defunct Delaware for-profit company that had also been involved with heart screening work. The two organizations apparently had the same treasurer listed at one point. Mrs. Vining explained that she had spent six figures from her own money on heart screenings after a major corporate donor pulled its support, and that the private company had been a contractor for that effort.

Finally, it was also noted that the foundation had apparently failed to file tax returns for several recent years in Massachusetts – something that basically negates a nonprofit status in the state as long as it lasts. This situation was blamed on a former attorney who had apparently been paid to do the work but never submitted it. The tax problem had apparently been caused by an attorney who was paid to do the work but never filed it, foundation official Bert Vining told the selectmen. He added that the foundation had been unaware of its delinquent tax return status until about a week before. “I agree it looks terrible,” Bert Vining later told the selectmen, adding that he expected the matter to be resolved by the end of this week. At one point in the meeting, Selectman Kathryn Manupelli questioned the value of the DPH’s vetting process, noting that most red flags about the foundation had come up on simple Google searches. She also noted on several occasions that there is already another business operating in the address where medical marijuana is zoned.

Before selectmen voted Monday night, they held a public hearing where well over a dozen residents spoke on the issue, both for and against, although more of those in attendance were against the facility and in some cases, against medical marijuana itself.

Medical marijuana was approved by 63% of Massachusetts voters in a 2012 ballot initiative question. According to the town website, North Reading voters approved that measure by a 4,941–3,519 margin.

Monday night’s hearing was also intended to focus exclusively on the medical marijuana proposal that had come before the town. The separate matter of recreational marijuana sales is set to be addressed by voters at this spring’s special town meeting and in the town election. Also Monday night, State Senate Republican Leader Bruce Tarr was on hand to answer some questions about the legislative process around these issues – although in general, he largely emphasized that it’s still very, very early in the process.

As the hearing got underway, Selectman Michael Prisco suggested a new course of action on the medical marijuana issue. Citing his considerable discomfort with the foundation itself, Prisco suggested that with a specific parcel of land in town already zoned for medical marijuana, an RFP (Request for Proposals) process could potentially bring in a more lucrative and more experienced organization. “We’ve done it with everything else,” said Prisco.

O’Leary maintained that an RFP process was not fitting for the matter at hand, since this involved a local entity trying to establish itself in town as a permitted zoning use. In a follow up conversation the day after the selectmen’s vote, Prisco said that he does indeed to bring up the proposal for an RFP again, although first he wants to look at the town’s upcoming budget figures. “The cream will rise to the top,” he said later in the hearing. “I’d rather take less or no money from a company where I have confidence that they can do it. This is a serious issue.”

Early in the hearing, Police Chief Mike Murphy said he currently lacks the resources to effectively police a new establishment with such security requirements, estimating that it could take the equivalent of a full time position to do so. Police would reportedly need to background checks and fingerprinting for dispensary employees, the facility would allow police access to its electronic monitoring, and police would have also likely been present at the facility for deliveries, at least at the outset. Director of Health Robert Bracey and Fire Chief Bill Warnock also joined Murphy at a front table to take any resident questions.

Chief Murphy said he was satisfied with the foundation’s “willingness to work with us and with the community,” although he also had considerable concern about the cash nature of the business and the potential for crime involving deliveries and other situations. He also noted that there had been no provision where he could send an undercover officer into the facility to do a compliance check. He added that other areas with dispensaries do not appear to have had an increase in DUI issues, but noted that with 100 projected customers per day, the potential was still there for it. The chief also said he was not the event at the event to offer an opinion on medical marijuana itself. “It’s legal, and we have taken on the duty to uphold the law,” he said, while adding that “we will not be able to accommodate this with the current manpower we have.”

Among the residents who spoke, one man, Chris McGovern, warned of the risk of DUI cases, recalling a fatality where a state trooper was killed in an accident caused b somebody who had apparently been at a dispensary earlier that night. Showing a photo of the trooper’s widow on his electronic device, he cited the “incredible places for abuse” in the medical marijuana laws.

Another resident, Karen Moberg, spoke in favor of the facility, emphasizing that if there is abuse of the law going on, it needs to be reported to the state, and that if it is in the home, it’s up to parents to keep it from children, not unlike with Drano or prescription pills. “I understand many of you may not believe in this form of medicine, but it’s not for debate here,” she added. Moberg also noted that the town could very much use some new sources of revenue amid talk that there could be a tight school budget situation coming up. “We really need to face the facts that our town needs alternative sources of revenue,” she added.

Resident Bob Hickey questioned the value of the projected cash flows from the facility, citing the added law enforcement costs that would come with it. Another resident, Colleen Steenmeyer, an analytical chemist, said that medical marijuana had greatly helped her father during his battle with stage 4 esophageal cancer. Steve Russell, a member of the town’s Community Impact Team, spoke against the facility, calling marijuana a gateway drug and recalling the devastating impact opiods had taken on his family.

As the debate wound down, selectmen offered some final comments on the issue. Yull, noting that he had just a run a forum event on opioids last October, said that “if we don’t approve it, we’re going against the will of the town,” since a 56% majority in North Reading had in fact voted for it back in 2012. “I won’t be a just so no type person just because I don’t want it,” added Yull. He also questioned why somebody would vote for medical marijuana at the state level but would then oppose it in their own back yard. “I have problems with this mentality,” he said.

Selectman O’Leary noted that he had voted against recreational marijuana and in favor of medical, adding that he had felt it was important for the proposed dispensary to have no signs or advertising on it. “I’m ok with it, I have to move with the times,” said O’Leary, adding that it had been approved by voters and that there is also the chance that the Trump administration could clamp down on all state marijuana legalization. With O’Leary and Yull voting yes and Prisco and Manupelli voting no, the tie-breaker came down to board Chairman Robert Mauceri. “I’ve been on the fence to some degree,” said Mauceri, acknowledging that while the town could use more money, he, like some of his colleagues, had simply had too many concerns about the applicants themselves. “There have been enough concerns raised in my mind that I’m saying no,” said Mauceri before the 3-2 vote.