The interior of the new Sunnyside dispensary in Philadelphia

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Philadelphia’s 12th medical marijuana dispensary opened this week, a milestone that comes two years after the first store opened in Fishtown in 2018.

The latest addition is Sunnyside, the retail end of Chicago-based Cresco Labs, with a 5,500-square-foot dispensary at 12th and Chestnut. While local advocates for marijuana access say more dispensaries are good, they also point to a growing disparity.

Dispensaries are not spread evenly throughout the city — a reality driven by zoning regulations that dictate where dispensaries can open, as well as where business owners choose to invest, officials and advocates say.

“There’s an equity issue,” said Tony Payton Jr., a marijuana lobbyist in Pennsylvania who’s also a certified grower out of state.

Pennsylvania is one of 36 states that have at least partially approved the sale of marijuana, making it part of the nation’s nearly $18 billion legal cannabis industry. While Pa. requires a medical prescription, more and more states — including neighboring New Jersey and New York — are now moving to full legalization of adult use.

Philadelphia’s dispensary growth has lagged behind other cities. Baltimore, which opened its first dispensaries in 2017, just a year before Philly, boasts more than twice the number of locations.

A map shows big swaths of Philly still don’t have access to a nearby bud shop.

Sunnyside is the third dispensary in Center City, which is now home to a quarter of the city’s retail options for the medical marijuana card holders. Others are lumped in the River Wards and Northeast Philly, with two clustered along City Avenue near St. Joe’s University.

Not a single dispensary has opened yet in North, Southwest and most of West Philadelphia, which are home to the city’s largest share of Black residents. When it comes to arrests for marijuana possession, however, Black people are much more likely to be cited. Most marijuana offenses have resulted in tickets since the city effectively decriminalized possession in 2014, though racial bias in these citations remains largely untracked.

Overcoming public opinion and zoning restrictions

Councilmember Derek Green, who spearheaded cannabis legislation in City Council, acknowledged the equity problem. He blamed it on a combination of regulations and the need for more education around marijuana use.

In Philadelphia, operators have to choose locations within very specific zoning guidelines, which lawmakers created in response to constituents expressing fear dispensaries in their neighborhoods, or near schools and rec centers.

“Business owners are deciding for them what makes the best sense for location, and they’re reaching out to councilmembers to see who has an appetite in their community,” Green said.

The lawmaker said he’s launching an education campaign in advance of a November ballot question that will ask Philly voters if they support legalizing recreational cannabis. It’s a public opinion test more than anything, as Harrisburg will have the final say on the matter.

Regulatory issues will remain a hurdle at both the city and state level.

Pennsylvania law bars dispensaries within 1,000 feet of K-12 schools and their facilities. Philly’s current restriction is already lower, at 500 feet. City storefronts also can’t be within that distance of any public park, playground, swimming pool, rec center or library.

The battle over dispensary locations first erupted before Council in 2016. Mayor Kenney’s administration pushed back on what they viewed as the overly strict zoning restrictions that set up off-limit perimeters around daycare centers, houses of worship, downtown hotels and even the convention center.

Under those proposed regulations, only a select few tracts of the city would have been eligible. After compromise, the final bill removed restrictions around houses of worship — but the density of the other restricted facilities still presents barriers, said Payton, the lobbyist.

As written, the restrictions reinforce issues of equitable access to legal marijuana. “Until that changes, the problems are going to metastasize,” Payton said.

List of medical marijuana dispensaries in Philadelphia

4026 Main St., Manayunk

807 Locust St., Wash West
2467 Grant Ave., Northeast Philly

Beyond / Hello
475 N. 5th St., Northern Liberties
1206 Sansom St., Midtown Village/Gayborhood

Keystone Shops
300 Packer Ave., South Philly

Liberty Dispensary
8900 Krewstown Rd., Bustleton

1125 E. Passyunk Ave., East Passyunk
5058 City Ave., Wynnefield

Cure Pennsylvania
4502 City Ave., Wynnefield Heights

1221 Chestnut St., Midtown Village/Gayborhood

9585 Frankford Ave., Fishtown

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...