BRISTOL, Va. — City leaders expressed unanimous support Tuesday for approving two special exception permits that will allow Dharma Pharmaceuticals to operate, but the council was divided over an increase in the trash collection rate.
The council voted 5-0 to approve both Dharma’s state-approved location in the Bristol Mall’s former J.C. Penney store and an alternate site on Gate City Highway. Those approvals pave the way for Dharma to establish a cannabidiol oil pharmaceutical processing operation with a retail location to sell products to qualified Virginia residents.
The local company is one of five approved by the Virginia Board of Pharmacy to grow Cannabis sativa plants in a secured area, extract the CBD and THC-A oils and refine those oils into pharmaceutical products. Because cannabis [marijuana] remains listed as a Schedule I drug by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, state regulations strictly govern every aspect of the facility.
“I appreciate the partners that considered Bristol. I think they thought a long time before deciding where to put a facility like this,” Mayor Kevin Mumpower said. “It’s not an easy facility. There is a lot involved with a new product, a new process, a new company — especially one where the state of Virginia has still got to go through the pharmaceutical approval. They’ve done a very nice job.”
As proposed, Dharma would occupy about 40,000 square feet, primarily on one level of the former retail store, with about 5,000 square feet in the former Eckerd Drug location. The plan would include spaces for retail pharmacy, offices, security control, plant growing, extraction and testing labs.
People take cannabidiol for anxiety, bipolar disorder, muscle disorders such as dystonia, seizures, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia, according to the website WebMD.com.
Vice Mayor Kevin Wingard noted there is a stigma attached to the plant, but science has already revealed medicinal benefits to treat certain conditions.
“This business is pharmaceutical. It just happens to be with a product that our government blacklisted many, many years ago, so it threw a bad shadow over it,” Wingard said. “If all guidelines are followed, I see no negatives to it.”
Councilman Anthony Farnum said the company would both create jobs and attract people to the city.
“They will create jobs — good jobs — but it’s not just about the jobs they’ll have. … Their customers who will come and shop are not going to be just from Bristol, Virginia, but from all over Southwest Virginia, coming here to Bristol,” Farnum said. “I’m thinking we have an opportunity to market our city to people who have never been here before.”
The permit language includes a provision that the permit “shall terminate 12 months after a written contract or agreement is signed by the [mall] property owner committing to the development of the entire mall as a master plan blend of uses as recommended by the city’s comprehensive plan.”
Mall owner Par Ventures is also an investor in Dharma.
The second permit covers a 1.1-acre parcel adjacent to the mall where Dharma could build a free-standing processing facility, should it ever need to relocate out of the mall, which is also the proposed site of a resort casino.
Earlier on Tuesday, the city’s Planning Commission voted 5-1 to advance both requests to the council following a lengthy debate over the 12-month provision and its potential future application should other businesses locate in the mall.
“We cannot sit here and solve the world’s problems with the maybes and what ifs,” Vice Mayor and commission member Wingard said during that meeting. “We need to deal with the facts we have before us today. We have something that has been approved by the state of Virginia to open up and manufacture cannabidiol — that’s what’s before us. The question is, are we going to support this and move it on to council or nitpick it and shut this down?”
In other matters, a divided City Council voted 3-2 to approve a 50% increase in the residential trash collection rate. Starting July 1, residents will pay $33 a month, an $11 per month increase over the current rate. Other charges will also go up.
Two residents and two council members spoke out against the increase as both Mumpower and Wingard made impassioned appeals to increase the rates by a lesser amount or postpone action until a more detailed study of all aspects of the solid waste revenue stream could be completed.
“There is a lot wrong with this resolution,” Mumpower said. “The first thing is trying to make what we think is a responsible decision before we’ve really studied the problem. … That’s why I wanted to put a strong committee together with some real experts to really study these complex issues to see what all of the options are.”
In the end, the council agreed to work toward solving landfill issues, but council members Bill Hartley, Neal Osborne and Anthony Farnum voted to approve the increase while Mumpower and Wingard voted no.
“I don’t want to pay it either, but sometimes we find ourselves in a situation, and, like I said last week, sometimes you have to take decisive action,” Osborne said.