A GROWING INDUSTRY — From left, PA Options for Wellness CEO Thomas Trite, Chief Financial Officer Jim Byerly and Chief Operating Officer John Spagnola listen to a question during their presentation about building a medical marijuana production facility at the business campus in Penn Twp. To the right is Bill Roberts, president of Juniata Twp.-based IBS Development. He has pledged to build the facility if the company receives a license from the state.  

By Jim T. Ryan
Staff Writer

The general tenor of residents was receptive of a plan presented on Jan. 23 by PA Options for Wellness for a medical marijuana facility in Penn Twp.

But residents still have a lot of questions and want more details on the business that could create up to 80 jobs.

“I’m all about what you’re doing,” said Lori Bennett of Orchard Hill Drive near the proposed development site. “But I live there. I want to know we’re protected.”

Bennett and others asked a lot of questions centered around security, traffic, waste, employment and environmental factors during the public meeting. 

PA Options for Wellness is proposing a medical cannabis production facility in the Perry County Business Campus on Route 274. The park also is home to Mutzabaugh’s Family Market, Holy Spirit Family Health Center, IT company Penn Tech Deployments, Rite Aid, and Members 1st Federal Credit Union.

The new facility would grow the plants using both soil and hydroponics, then extract oils and chemicals from them to make pharmaceutical grade oils, capsules, liquids and topical ointments, executives said.

“It’s focused on taking care of patients,” said Thomas Trite, company CEO, a pharmacist, and former executive of a pharmacy service for long-term care facilities that was based in Newport.

Trite outlined the extensive security, which would include high-end computerized entries, fencing, and software that tracks the product from seed to production and sale.

He also said plant waste most likely would be destroyed or composted for reuse.

Traffic would be limited to secure transport vans, similar to what’s used by pharmacies, and employee vehicles, Trite said. Employees would include receptionists, grow technicians, processing techs, pharmaceutical chemists and compliance officers. 

All employees would be required to have state police and FBI background checks to eliminate those who have prior drug, violence, and other criminal convictions.

“We’re not going to be putting anything out on the street,” Trite said. “It’s controlled from seed to sale.”

County District Attorney Andrew Bender attended the meeting. He said he was curious, too. But from what he’s heard from the company, it appears everything is on the right side of the state’s laws. He’ll continue to watch with interest, he said.

Under Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana law passed last year, the cannabis plant cannot be used in raw form for smoking or ingestion. The law provides for state licensing for production facilities and dispensaries, similar to a pharmacy. 

“We didn’t get into this to sell dope to stoners,” said John Spagnola, a compounding pharmacist and the company’s chief operating officer.

Medical marijuana products require doctor’s prescriptions for select serious and chronic diseases, such as epilepsy, seizures, cancer, HIV/AIDS, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), like that experienced by soldiers returning from war.

Trite said he’s spent time with the state law’s architect, Sen. Mike Folmer of Lebanon, in talking to patients who’ve benefitted from medical cannabis. They went to Colorado where treatments have been established for some time.

He met with displaced patients from other states, including veterans and a 14-year-old girl who suffered from uncontrollable seizures. Until she began medical cannabis treatments. Now, she’s seizure-free, he said.

“After that (trip), there was no turning back,” Trite said. He sees the evidence of the drug’s medical usefulness.

For Tom Bennett, a veteran who works around the state helping homeless veterans — some of whom have benefitted from medical marijuana — the facility sounds like a good idea. 

But like his wife, Lori, he wants to make sure that it won’t be a burden to nearby residents, and is developed with the soundest security and environmental protocol. He was concerned about how much water the facility would use because he’s seen neighbors have to deepen their wells.

“What’s the affect on the business campus, and our homes?” Tom Bennett said. “We want to make sure we’re getting the right thing for our community.”

Trite said the facility would use about 1,400 gallons of water a day, but they’re working to develop plans to reduce water use through recycling and other measures. Trite said the company is willing to spend more money up front to build the best facility and meet community expectations.

Township supervisor Brian Peters said the site is away from Orchard Hill Drive and is unlikely to affect residents.

The company is in the planning phases and did not have facility sketches or artistic drawings. Trite said those are close to being complete.

The Bennetts and others said they want to see details before fully supporting it.

“We’ll do as many meetings as you want,” Trite said. After the meeting, he said there’s potential for a facility tour for the community before it goes operational. After that, laws wouldn’t permit public access.

Other officials also reassured residents the facility is good for the community.

“We share the same concerns,” said Rich Pluta, Perry County Chamber of Commerce president. “What will it do to the quality of life in our county?”

The chamber and others see a lot of potential benefits. Family-sustaining jobs and economic spinoff top the list. 

PA Options for Wellness signed on with a Perry developer to build the facility. IBS Development, a real estate developer working with the company, is run by Bill Roberts. He lives in Juniata Twp., where he runs IBS and operates a farm. His wife is Marti Roberts, president of the Perry County Economic Development Authority (PCEDA).

Bill Roberts said the facility will create jobs, but there’s potential for economic spinoff, such as industrial hemp products. Hemp is a cousin plant to cannabis that doesn’t have the concentration of chemicals for medical applications. Hemp fibers can make rope or cloth, and the seeds and oil have applications from food to agriculture to plastics.

The state Department of Agriculture last year began pilot programs for hemp growth in Pennsylvania. The plant could be a cash crop for farmers.

The business campus has been around for more than a decade, said county Commissioner Paul Rudy. It was designed to add 500 jobs to the county. The proposed facility would be a huge step in that direction. That’s why the county threw its support behind Trite and his partners.

“All three commissioners, we’ve given them a letter of support,” Rudy said. “We think it’s a real positive thing.”

Penn Twp. supervisors also penned a letter of support at their December meeting. So has the chamber and the PCEDA, said Pluta, who’s on both boards.

Officials also pointed to the company’s local connections. PA Options for Wellness executives have experience doing business in Perry County, or in nearby communities. Trite started his former company in Newport, and Spagnola, too, had a pharmacy in the county. The company’s chief financial officer, Jim Byerly, was former owner of the Byerly Insurance brokerage in Camp Hill. 

Jim T. Ryan can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]

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