Christopher Baxter and his new business, Bailey Farms LLC, received approval from the Riverside Planning Board last month to open a medical marijuana dispensary in the former Riverside Savings and Loan Building on Scott Street in the center of the community’s business district.

RIVERSIDE – Burlington County residents prescribed medical marijuana can finally be spared having to travel outside the county to get the drug if a Moorestown attorney’s application to run a pharmacy is approved.

Christopher Baxter and his new company, Bailey Farms LLC, received approval from the Riverside Planning Board last month to open a medical marijuana dispensary in the former Riverside Savings and Loan Building on Scott Street in the center of the downtown business district.

The board’s approval is believed to be the first time a local planning body has approved an application for a medical marijuana business in the county. However, the requirement is that Baxter obtain the necessary license from the state health department to operate a pharmacy.

The department is currently accepting applications for 24 new licenses for marijuana businesses, including at least seven in the southern part of the state.

Specifically, the department plans to issue five licenses for retail pharmacies in the south, one license for cultivation and a so-called “vertical integration license”, which will enable the company to cultivate, process and sell the drug.

The faculty’s application deadline is 21.-22. August.

None of the six medical marijuana dispensaries currently operating in New Jersey are in Burlington County, and six more, approved by the Department of Health last December, are also planned for locations outside the county.

Baxter is a longtime criminal defense attorney who previously served as a prosecutor in several cities in Burlington County, including Riverside. In a statement, he said his team was excited about the opportunity to join the state program.

“We are pleased that the state is accepting applications to expand its medical cannabis program,” he said. “Our team is full of energy to be part of this opportunity.”

In his application to the planning agency, Baxter stated that the pharmacy would only have space for retail medical cannabis sales and offices. The drug would not be grown or processed on site.

Approximately 10 to 11 employees are expected to work on the construction site and operating hours are expected to be between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

In addition to the purchase of the former bank building, the company also has a contract for the purchase of an adjacent parking lot that provides employee and disabled parking spaces.

The application also indicated that the proposed pharmacy would be equipped with a high-definition digital security camera system that will record activity both outside and inside the building, including a lighted public alley. The pharmacy’s floor plan will also include a secure entry station and public reception waiting room, retail space and secure storage areas including a storage vault.

Before Baxter and his team received planning committee approval, they also convinced members of the township committee and convinced them to pass an ordinance stating that medical marijuana dispensaries are conditionally used in the downtown business district.

Riverside Mayor Lorraine Hatcher said the board of directors was comfortable with Baxter and his proposal after presenting its plans to them, and she said she was pleased to hear residents approve the proposal during the company’s hearing before the planning committee.

“I was expecting something (contradiction), but it was very heartwarming to hear the residents come to the planning agency to support them,” said Hatcher. “People I had no idea were using marijuana spoke for it.”

She quoted a resident who described how his wife went from being almost bedridden to functioning because of the drug.

“He thanked him so much. My wife is back in our family for medical marijuana. It’s whole again, ”said Hatcher.

However, Baxter is not the only party believed to be interested in opening a pharmacy in Burlington County, as other potential marijuana business owners have expressed interest in locating pharmacies in Burlington City and Palmyra.

None of these cities’ planning bodies have approved applications for specific locations, although Palmyra has written letters of support for three marijuana companies applying for licenses from the state, said John Gural, the district’s administrator.

Gural said interest groups were encouraged to track locations on the north side of Route 73, but no specific location was approved. And while he said the mayor and council seem comfortable hosting medical marijuana companies in the district, he said elected leaders are also seeking answers from the state government on what could happen if New Jersey eventually abandons the drug legalized for recreational use and whether medical cannabis dispensaries and stores would then be released to sell to recreational customers.

“State law is clearly in flux,” said Gural, adding that the mayor has also committed to holding a city meeting devoted to the issue.

Murphy and the Democratic leaders of the New Jersey Legislature support legalizing the drug for adult use, but legislation enacted this year has not received support from simple enough lawmakers to get approval. Legislators are now planning to hold a public referendum in 2020 to try to legalize it.

Meanwhile, the demand for medical marijuana has risen dramatically since Governor Phil Murphy took office last year, and has made access for qualified patients a top priority. The state program was considered one of the most restricted programs in the country when it was launched in 2012.

Only 15,000 patients were registered to receive the drug when Murphy took office. Since then, the number of registered patients has grown rapidly to over 47,000 and demand is expected to continue to grow thanks to ongoing reforms, including a new law Murphy signed this month to make medical cannabis more accessible.

Major changes include an increase in the monthly limit for legal purchases of cannabis patients from 2 to 3 ounces and an extension of the approval period, for which patients can receive the drug without going back to a doctor, to a full year instead of 90 days.

Attitudes towards the sale of medical marijuana have also changed since the state’s inception of the program. At the time, two of the six state-licensed nonprofits to sell the drug were applying for local permits to open pharmacies at locations in Maple Shade, but found a different location due to public backlash at planning committee hearings.

Hatcher said most residents and officials are now aware of its medical benefits and lack of access in Burlington County is an issue.

“(Patients) are the ones who hurt. They are forcing people who need it to function to leave the area to get their medication, ”she said.