The headline last Thursday read “Plans hazy on opening timeline.” Our accompanying story — about the disappearing plans of the only business authorized to open a medical marijuana dispensary in this area — might be enough to cause a chuckle over whether the haziness results from something the company’s officials are smoking, if the impact on those in need of therapeutic cannabis wasn’t so severe.
The course of legalized medical marijuana in New Hampshire has been a slow one. Though the prescribing and dispensing of cannabis for a limited number of medical conditions was first authorized in 2013, the state, under then-Gov. Maggie Hassan, moved deliberately, to put it mildly. Since 2016, when the state eventually granted licenses for so-called alternative treatment centers, the nearest to this corner of the state have been in Merrimack and Lebanon. This leaves most area residents facing a round-trip drive of up to at least two, and in some cases three, hours to receive prescribed treatment. As the types of uses the state has authorized cannabis for include treating cancer, ALS and other debilitating illnesses and easing serious pain, such a drive is as much — or more — an ordeal as it is an extreme inconvenience.
A breakthrough seemed to have been reached in 2018 when the Legislature amended the law to authorize dispensaries in certain underserved areas, including one for Cheshire and Sullivan counties. By January 2019, Temescal Wellness, which operates the Lebanon center, as well as one in Dover and others in Massachusetts, announced plans to open a Keene dispensary at 69 Island St., and in April 2019 stated it would open in the fall. At a public information session held a month later, a Temescal representative outlined plans to renovate the space by mid-summer last year and said the clinic would open shortly thereafter. She also said Temescal expected the clinic could see anywhere from 35 to 75 patients daily.
Some initial follow-though occurred. Temescal indeed submitted a building application to the Keene community development department in June 2019. Some planning apparently continued for a while, as City Manager Elizabeth Dragon says that by last September only a plumber’s sign-off was needed for the city to issue a permit.
Since then, all progress has stopped. Dragon says the city has not heard from Temescal since September. And Temescal itself went silent, not responding until last week to multiple inquiries from The Sentinel over the past eight months about its schedule.
And, now that Temescal has at last spoken, why has it not made good on its plans to open the Keene dispensary? Why, the COVID-19 pandemic, of course. Without offering any explanation for reneging on its promise to Keene-area patients during the six months after the permitting process was essentially complete and before the coronavirus shutdown, spokesperson Linda Katz says the company now has no timeline for the project because of the operational changes required by social distancing.
In assessing that explanation — which relates to only the last four months — it’s worth noting that New Hampshire’s medical marijuana dispensaries have been essential businesses under the state’s coronavirus emergency guidelines, and Temescal’s already-established clinics in Lebanon and Dover have been operating throughout the lockdown, though they are taking orders, conducting patient consultations and scheduling pickups only over the phone.
Of course, concerns about the economic fallout from the pandemic might be as understandable for Temescal as for any business these days. Yet Temescal’s marketing director Brandon Morphew told the Worcester Business Journal in a June 17 article that its medical marijuana sales have remained consistent and that the company’s medical marijuana business has been healthy during the pandemic period.
Frustratingly, current law does not allow a second licensee to operate here, and the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services believes that it is not empowered by the legislation to revoke Temescal’s license that covers Cheshire County. It’s difficult to believe that the state, having issued Temescal a license, has no recourse to make Temescal live up to its promises, whether by threatening revocation, nonrenewal or other action. Meanwhile, the need increases. Since 2016, the number of qualifying patients in Cheshire County has increased by over 50 percent each year, to almost 500 in 2019, the most recent figures reported by the state.
For too long, area patients needing prescribed cannabis treatment have been seriously inconvenienced, first by the state’s go-slow approach to implementing the 2013 law and for the past year by Temescal’s seeming unwillingness to act in good faith on implementing its state-granted license for this area.
To be blunt, even if the law doesn’t give the state specific means to revoke, Gov. Chris Sununu and his administration should ratchet up the pressure on Temescal to own up to its commitment to the region’s many medical marijuana patients.