PA: Inside Philly’s First Marijuana Dispensary, Restore In Fishtown

Photo Credit: Jay Lassiter

Activists cheered when Gov. Tom Wolf signed Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana law in April 2016, but the program rollout has gone slowly. Two years later, there’s still not a single dispensary in Philly.

That’s about to change.

Restore Integrative Wellness Center is poised to become Philadelphia’s first medical cannabis dispensary.

Located by the trolley loop at 957 Frankford Ave. in Fishtown, right across from the Fillmore, Restore plans to open its doors to qualified, registered patients sometime in “mid-May,” according to Dimple Thakrar, Restore’s spokesperson.

In advance of the grand opening, a “private launch party for press, politicians, and local business owners” provided a preview of what medical cardholders will find inside. (Alas, no samples.)

Modern, chic and soothing

The decor is chic and modern, offset strikingly by a wall in the front room entirely covered in plants. (Real plants. We checked.) Patients can lounge in gorgeous, mid-century orange leather chairs while waiting to check in. The main dispensing room is bright and ample, with large video screens on the walls to display the daily menu.

Generally, the place feels designed to be soothing and therapeutic — which makes sense. Many customers may be sick or frail, so details like gentle ramps and wide berths matter.

“We are ecstatic” Thakrar told Billy Penn about Restore’s pending launch. “Not only are we the first, but we would like to dispel all the stigma attached to medical marijuana. We want to create an environment where people feel safe and secure. We have a responsibility to make sure we provide the highest standard of care.”

Pennsylvania’s program covers a wide range of ailments, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, seizure disorders, PTSD and glaucoma.

The program also permits cannabis therapy for chronic pain. Or more specifically, for anyone who suffers “severe chronic or intractable pain of neuropathic origin or severe chronic or intractable pain in which conventional therapeutic intervention and opiate therapy is contraindicated or ineffective.”

As the law is currently written, people struggling to recover from opioid addiction will not be provided access to Restore’s products. That’s slated to change — but exactly when remains to be seen.

Upgrading PA’s program

A growing body of peer-reviewed academic research demonstrates better addiction-related outcomes in the wake of reformed marijuana laws. For example, states where cannabis is legal report 25 percent fewer opioid-related fatalities.

There were 1217 reported heroin overdose-related fatalities in Philadelphia last year. That 34 percent jump from 2016 — at once eye-popping and heart-breaking — comes thanks to fentanyl, a synthetic opiate 60 to 100 times more powerful than heroin itself. Fentanyl’s lethality is a powerful deterrent to most of us. Not so for heroin addicts, who are drawn to fentanyl for the massively intoxicating and often deadly high.

Luke Shultz sits on the patient/caregiver subcommittee of the PA Medical Marijuana Advisory Board, which works with the health commissioner to improve Pa.’s medical cannabis program and make it more accessible to patients. Unsurprisingly, the region’s opiate crisis has been on his committee’s mind.

“I was extremely pleased when the Board approved the recommendation put forth by our subcommittee to add ‘Addiction substitute therapy – opioid reduction’ as a new qualifying condition,” Shultz told Billy Penn. “I was equally pleased when [PA Health Commissioner] Dr. Rachel Levine adopted this and all recommendations approved by the Board”

Those recommendations, which include provisions for smokable cannabis flowers (aka buds), go into effect “sometime this summer,” he added.

Billy Penn reached out to the PA Department of Health no less than five times to confirm when these recommendations actually go live. No answer was forthcoming.

So while Philly’s first cannabis dispensary is set to welcome patients, residents ensnared by opiates still have to wait until later this summer for their legal cannabis option.

“Cannabis therapy helps people afflicted with opioid addiction,” Shultz pointed out. “Not only to legally pursue a safer medication to use as a substitute, but also to help with the symptoms of withdrawal.”

Dispensing addiction help

Britt James Carpenter of Manayunk is a former IV heroin user. He’s well-acquainted with those withdrawal symptoms.

“Detox is like your body being squeezed in a vice grip and having food poisoning and the flu and a breakdown all at once,” Carpenter said. “I remember while detoxing, waking up at night totally drenched. Burning up. The shakes were the worst. Then the hot sweats, which suddenly meant I’m freezing.”

He used cannabis to manage those withdrawal symptoms.

“Some doctors, they suggest methadone, they pushed it hard. But for me, that was the same stuff I was ready to leave behind,” said Carpenter, who founded the PhillyUnknown Project to provide necessities and support to those suffering from homelessness, addiction, “or just plain in need.”

“I was always a cannabis user,” he added. “It’s the best thing for detox, especially the shakes. Cannabis helped me sleep, helped me gain weight. I was actually able to enjoy food! Cannabis helped me through all that, especially with the anxiety I experienced.”

Mr Carpenter credits cannabis for helping him get clean.

Staff at Restore appear keenly aware of how their services might help curb Philly’s growing heroin epidemic.

“It’s great news that opioid withdrawal is now part of the Pennsylvania program,” said spokesperson Thakrar, noting that Restore plans to have pharmacists on site at the Fishtown dispensary — not far from many of the encampments where some opioid users congregate — to support people through that painful transition.

Said Thakrar: “We’re taking our role fighting Philadelphia’s opiate crisis very seriously.”