PORTLAND – Cumberland County’s first medical marijuana dispensary is expected to open this fall on Congress Street in Portland.

York County may have to wait a little longer.

Maine awarded six operating licenses Friday for nonprofit dispensaries around the state, and one of the licensees plans to lease part of the former Key Bank building at 959 Congress, near the corner of St. John Street.

However, officials rejected all six license applications to operate a dispensary in York County and set a new deadline of Aug. 20 for the next round of applications. That could push back the opening of a dispensary in that part of the state until early next year. New applications also must be sought for the Down East facility.

Northeast Patients Group won the right to open the dispensary in Cumberland County, one of eight public health districts in Maine. The group, which has Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion on its board of directors, also won licenses to operate dispensaries in three other districts around the state: Augusta-Waterville, Thomaston-Rockland and Bangor-Hermon.

Remedy Compassion Center of East Wilton will serve Franklin, Oxford and Androscoggin counties and Safe Alternatives of Fort Kent will dispense the drug in Aroostook County.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” said Rebecca DeKeuster, chief executive officer of Northeast Patients Group. “Maine is really pioneering something unique here and certainly all eyes will be on these first dispensary operators and we have a responsibility to our patients and the greater community to do it right.”

In addition to Dion and DeKeuster, who has seven years experience working in a California dispensary, the board of directors for Northeast is made up of Winthrop resident Faith Benedetti, a member of the state’s medical marijuana task force; and Paul Sevigny, a retired pharmacist from Holden.

The Portland dispensary may be watched even more closely than the others. It is expected to be Maine’s busiest by far, due to the number of disabled and ill people who already live in the area or visit there for medical services and its proximity to the city’s public transportation network.

The neighborhood is home to the Cumberland County sheriff’s headquarters, Maine Medical Center, a number of medical offices and buildings, Union Station Plaza and an Interstate 295 interchange.

The proposed site is across the street from the Greyhound Bus Lines terminal, close to the Portland Transportation Center’s Amtrak Downeaster and Concord Coach Lines stations, and on or near three city bus lines.

DeKeuster said the group now must complete negotiations to lease part of the Congress Street building. Mercy Hospital operates a diabetes center in another part of the building.

“I think it’s an ideal property for our use. It’s very accessible for patients,” DeKeuster said. “It’s a beautiful building and patients deserve something that’s nice.”

The fact that it was a bank is a bonus when it comes to security for the marijuana that will be stored there, she said.

“It is designed to protect valuables.”

The building is in a downtown business zone where Portland city councilors have proposed allowing marijuana dispensaries. The city’s Planning Board will consider that zoning change Tuesday. If the board agrees to the change, councilors could formally vote on the needed zoning change July 19.

“The council’s been very supportive from the beginning,” said Mayor Nicholas Mavodones. “You just need to talk to some of the people who need the treatment and then it’s pretty easy to say this makes sense. Hopefully, we’ll get the zoning in place and things can move forward.”

Councilor David Marshall, whose district includes the proposed dispensary, said the site seems to be a good one for patients and he doesn’t expect neighborhood resistance.

“I believe Portlanders are ready to embrace a dispensary and I’m fully willing to accept one in my district,” he said.

“I’m confident with the state regulations and city regulations and proper oversight, this can be a successful business in the city.”

Some of the people who live and work in the neighborhood said Friday they were not concerned about the arrival of a medical marijuana dispensary in their midst.

“I am happy for it and if anything I think it will decrease crime,” said Lakisha Green, who walks by the proposed site on her way into Portland.

Bill O’Brien, manager of the Glidden Paint store next door to the site, said there is already a crime problem in the area, pointing to the Key Bank ATM at the 959 Congress St. building where a man was recently stabbed six times. He said he just doesn’t know enough about the dispensary and how it will work to have an opinion at this point.

“I will wait and see. There is a big unknown factor to it,” O’Brien said.

Patty Young, who was pushing her 3-year-old daughter, Devlin Reid, in a stroller from her home on Park Avenue to the Union Station Plaza, said the dispensary will help sick people.

“Alcohol is a lot worse,” she said.

Jeffrey Bleeker, front desk clerk at the Inn at St. John, 939 Congress St., said he did not expect the dispensary to affect business.

“The police are going to do different things to make sure there are no problems,” Bleeker said.

Northeast Patients Group plans to cultivate marijuana for all of its dispensaries at one or more central locations, and will start with a warehouse in Hermon, DeKeuster said. It does not plan to grow marijuana in Portland.

The Portland dispensary will sell marijuana to state-registered patients, and the drug will be available in natural form or in cookies, lozenges and tinctures, or liquid medications. It expects to sell the marijuana for $340 an ounce.

The nonprofit cannot issue dividends or stocks, and plans to use its net income to provide free services to patients including massage therapy, acupuncture, lectures and workshops. It also plans to donate to local charities that serve its patients and the community, DeKeuster said.

Northeast expects to serve about 300 patients in the first year, but will be prepared for much more business if the market is as large as some are predicting, she said. “We’re prepared to deal with whatever comes along.”

The selection of Northeast Patients Group to operate dispensaries in Portland and three other communities elicited mixed reactions among medical marijuana advocates.

“I’m disappointed that the state, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to bring in outside sources thinking that we can’t do it ourselves,” said Charles Wynott of Westbrook, a longtime medical marijuana advocate and caregiver who grows marijuana on a small scale for patients.

Wynott said he’s worried that a group with California ties won’t keep the interests of Maine patients at the forefront, although he conceded that Northeast put together a strong application.

“It’s discouraging in one way; in the other way, they do have the experience (and) they have the backing of the sheriff, which I respect very much.”

Jonathan Leavitt, another advocate, was more encouraged by the choice.

“I think they can do a really good job taking care of the patients,” he said. “I think they’ve shown in their previous work (in California) that they know what they are doing.”

Leavitt also said he wasn’t concerned about a lack of competition among dispensaries, because registered patients can still go to caregivers who grow marijuana legally in their homes, or they can grow their own.

For advocates such as Leavitt, who led the effort to pass last fall’s medical marijuana referendum, the state’s first round of licenses is historic.

“This is a big milestone and we’ve got our fingers crossed that it’s going to move forward in a positive way for everyone involved.”

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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