Citing the potential for 30 new jobs, Farrell Council voted Monday to draft a letter of support to businesses aiming to open a facility to grow and process medical marijuana.
Council voted, 5-1, for Mayor Olive McKeithan to write the letter. McKeithan was the lone dissenting vote, and Councilwoman Kimberly Doss was absent.
McKeithan expressed reservations about allowing a marijuana growing facility in Farrell, but the mayor said she was swayed by the prospect of new jobs and ultimately voted against the proposal only because it called on the city to offer a letter of support for any company that requested one before the May 17 deadline.
The mayor said she wanted to limit the city’s statement of support to Commonwealth Alternative Medicinal Options, which goes by the acronym CAMO, because it was the only entity to meet with council in person. One other company contacted Farrell by email.
Matthew Mallory, CAMO’s founder, spoke Monday about his company’s proposal for a medical marijuana production facility. He said the company operates production outlets in Illinois, Michigan and Maryland, with permits in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
CAMO is applying for a license to grow and process medical marijuana in a building along Martin Luther King Boulevard in Farrell. The company plans to add on to the existing structure for a 50,000 square-foot facility that will initially employ about 30 people.
The company would have to win a state license before it would be able to open a production center in Farrell. Mallory said the state Department of Health is expected to award the licenses in mid-summer.
Attorney Patrick Nightingale, who testified before the state Legislature during debate over Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana law, said the state will use a point system to award two licenses in each of six regions, with the next top scorer receiving an additional license.
Mercer County is in Region 6, in northwestern Pennsylvania with Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Venango and Warren counties.
The state’s scoring system accounts for several factors, such as growing techniques, disposal of waste materials, and community and economic impact.
Mallory said the last of those considerations makes Farrell an attractive site for locating a medical marijuana grow facility. The city is in Act 47 status, which could increase the economic impact of a medical marijuana processing center. That factor alone accounts for 10 percent of the overall score, said Nightingale, a former prosecutor in Allegheny County who is now in private practice as a partner at the Pittsburgh-based Cannabis Legal Solutions law firm.
The jobs would pay between $27,000 and $112,000, and Mallory said the company would draw its work force from Farrell and the surrounding area.
“We came here to introduce ourselves,” he said. “We really want to be a part of this community.”
The state also will consider security and measures taken to prevent the diversion of legal medical marijuana for illegal recreational use, either by theft or active sales.
Mallory said the facility will be secure, with fencing around the property and video surveillance, and consultants who previously worked for the National Security Agency developed CAMO’s overall security plan.
The promise of jobs was sufficient to win support from most of council.
“I’m not too big on medical marijuana, but if it brings jobs to Farrell residents, I’m all for it,” councilman Cliff Gregory said.
McKeithan also was swayed by the promise of jobs, but acknowledged that Farrell has a reputation for drug-related problems and that growing medical marijuana in the city could do further damage.
From a law enforcement standpoint, the possibility of a medical marijuana processing operation in Mercer County raises grave concerns for District Attorney Miles Karson. If CAMO is approved for a license, Karson said his office would, “follow and enforce the law to the best of our ability,” even though he doesn’t want anyone growing medical marijuana in the county.
“To me, 30 jobs isn’t worth having a grow facility in the county,” Karson said.