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Faceoff over medical marijuana dispensary in Riverhead continues at public hearing

Manhattan-based Columbia Care NY LLC plans to open

Manhattan-based Columbia Care NY LLC plans to open Suffolk's first marijuana dispensary in January, at 1107 Rte. 58 in Riverhead. Credit: AP

Medical marijuana advocates, some battling severe illnesses or caring for sick relatives, packed Riverhead Town Hall Wednesday to urge officials to allow Suffolk County's first dispensary of the drug to open in January.

Riverhead officials are considering imposing a 1-year moratorium on marijuana dispensaries that would block Columbia Care NY LLC's plans to open one at a former Blockbuster video store on Route 58 in Riverhead, one of two planned for Long Island.

Donna Schwier, 58, a registered nurse from Medford, said at the public hearing that she lives in constant pain due to fibromyalgia and would like to use marijuana instead of the opiates she relies on.

"I'm tired of being in pain every day, and I want to have this option," Schwier said. "I live in Suffolk, and this is going to be my dispensary."

Riverhead Town Board members said at the hearing that they supported medical marijuana but wanted a moratorium to consider appropriate locations for a dispensary. Officials have expressed concerns about traffic and policing costs, and the site's proximity to Riverhead High School.

"We know there's a need, we want it in the Town of Riverhead, but we want it at a location that's right," said Councilman John Dunleavy, who proposed the moratorium.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter has said his desire for a moratorium stems from his belief that the state's passage of medical marijuana is a steppingstone to legalization of recreational marijuana.

At the hearing's end, Walter and Columbia Care chief executive Nicholas Vita agreed to meet further about a location for a dispensary.

Just one person spoke in favor of the moratorium during the two-hour hearing: Felicia Scocozza, director of the Riverhead Community Awareness Program, a drug and alcohol prevention organization.

Shesaid the moratorium "will give the town the time to thoughtfully study the impact" of the dispensary.

More than a dozen people spoke in favor of allowing the facility to open as soon as possible, saying it represents a long-awaited hope for county residents suffering from HIV, cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and other illnesses.

Julie Baum, 48, said she temporarily moved from East Hampton to Colorado to obtain a non-psychoactive form of marijuana for her 10-year-old son, who suffers from a severe form of epilepsy.

"This is about healing," said Baum, an East Hampton acupuncturist who is a cancer survivor. "This is about medicine. This is not about recreational use. We have to take the stigma away from this beautiful 2,000 year old herb, and view it as medicine."

Vince Taldone, 55, of Riverhead, said the town board's resistance is "misguided" in a town trying to build itself into a commercial hub.

"You've created this regional shopping center, you have eight pharmacies there, you have oxycontin available down the block from the school." Taldone said. "I'm deeply insulted by people who say a medical marijuana dispensary would generate a need for police. Are sick people causing crimes?"

Columbia Care, based in Manhattan, was one of five companies licensed by state officials in July to manufacture and distribute marijuana under the Compassionate Care Act passed by the State Legislature in June 2014.

Columbia Care NY is permitted to manufacture the drug upstate and open four dispensaries, including the one in Riverhead.

"This is about the patients," Vita, the company's chief executive, said at the hearing. "This is about people who shouldn't be ashamed to look for these types of treatment."

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