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Medical marijuana supporters pack public hearing to oppose moratorium


An overwhelming majority of speakers — many of whom suffered or had family members who suffered from diseases like epilepsy and cancer — voiced their support for medical marijuana at a public hearing Wednesday night. 

The majority of the Riverhead Town Board said it still intends to enact a one-year moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries unless a suitable location for the facility currently proposed for Route 58 can be found.

Columbia Care LLC, one of five companies selected to manufacture and dispense medical marijuana in New York, has proposed to locate one of its four dispensaries in the former Blockbuster Video building.

Most of the comments Wednesday dealt with the need for medical marijuana. Speaker after speaker argued that the drug can help people who are in tremendous pain and that the town’s proposed moratorium would only prolong that pain.

“One of the more hateful diseases to affect mankind is cancer,” said Sherry Patterson, speaking on behalf of the Peconic Bay Medical Center Board of Directors, of which she is the chair.

While stopping short of endorsing medical marijuana, Ms. Patterson, fighting back tears at one point, said, “Those of us who work in medicine have a solemn responsibility to employ every weapon modern science can supply in battling this disease.”

Andrew Mitchell, the president and CEO of PBMC, said the hospital has offered to work with Columbia Care to find a location suitable to the town. Officials from Columbia Care agreed to work with PBMC, but stressed the company is under a strict deadline imposed by the state to open by Jan. 1.

Riverhead Town Board members said the Route 58 location is too close to Riverhead High School. The moratorium would allow time for a study to find the best location in town, board members said. Columbia Care officials said they feel the town is legally preempted by the state from regulating the location of the proposed facility.

The drug can only be prescribed for 10 diseases, although more may be added, and only in certain forms, not including smoking.

“People with epilepsy face discrimination, and the possibility of death, and many get no relief from the medicine they’re on,” said Janet Romeo, an advocate for the Epilepsy Foundation of Long Island.

Donna Schwier, who suffers from fibromyalgia — a disorder without a cure that causes musculoskeletal pain, said she is in constant pain throughout her body. She asked the board to reconsider its moratorium.

“I don’t want to wait anymore,” she said. “We passed this bill almost a year and a half ago. Everything was supposed to be up and running by January.”

She added, “I’m tired of being in pain every day.”

Barbara Shey, a registered nurse who is certified as a cannabis nurse, said “alcohol is a far greater risk to a person’s health than cannabis will ever be.”

Other speakers said the opiates that have been prescribed for pain caused by cancer and other diseases are addictive and cause many harmful side effects that marijuana does not.

They said traditional pharmacies prescribe medications that are more addictive than marijuana.

“People tell me that medical marijuana helps them, and they have to get it from the streets,” said Dr. Travis Gross, a licensed pharmacist.

Shelby Miller, another certified cannabis nurse, said “marijuana is much less toxic than the drugs kids are probably taking or the drugs in the medicine cabinet.”

She said you can’t overdose on marijuana.

Dennis Kunian, an executive vice president at Columbia Care and a military veteran, said he suffered a brain injury in southeast Asia 45 years ago.

“I’m one of 200,000 veterans who suffer from a frontal lobe brain injury,” he said. “Twenty-two of them commit suicide every day.”

The opiates he has been prescribed didn’t relieve his suffering and came with a “tremendous amount of side effects” as well as addiction, he said.

He was prescribed medical marijuana in Maine, which relieved his suffering without side effects, he said.

The one speaker who supported the moratorium was Felicia Scocozza, the director of Riverhead Community Awareness Program, which teaches drug and alcohol prevention in schools.

“The issue not about whether medical marijuana is right or wrong,” she said. “It’s not a compassion issue.”

Ms. Scocozza said the issue is the distance between the proposed site and the high school as well as “the impact that the only such facility to serve all of Suffolk County will have on our community.”

The proposed moratorium will give the town the time to study facilities’ impact, she said. The Blockbuster site will impact police, emergency services and traffic, she said.

“The Town Board board is not opposed to medical marijuana, it’s opposed to the location,” Supervisor Sean Walter said.

He also said, as he has many times, that he feels the legalization of medical marijuana is a step toward the incremental legalization of marijuana in New York State.

Others disagreed.

“The only reason to pass a moratorium is to make a political statement that you don’t like that the state has legalized medical marijuana,” said resident Vince Taldone.

Diane Barba of Riverhead also doubted the concern over traffic at the proposed location.

“There was a Blockbuster there, nobody worried about the traffic. There was a gym there, nobody worried about the traffic,” she said.

After the hearing, Mr. Walter and Council members Jodi Giglio and George Gabrielsen said they still oppose the proposed location and they will go forward with the moratorium until a suitable location is found.

Photo Caption: Columbia Care CEO Nicholas Vita speaks at Wednesday’s public hearing on medical marijuana, while Donna Schwier, who suffers from fibromyalgia, listens.

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