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Maine - An Inside Look At Two Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

The General

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From the parking lot of Wellness Connection of Maine's medical marijuana dispensary there's not much to see: A brick facade, a blue awning and opaque windows revealing little of what lies beyond. A set of glass doors leads into a small room where patients check in with brown-aproned staff separated by a glass partition. After handing over ID and a physician's certificate or state-issued medical marijuana card, patients are buzzed in through a set of double doors into a large, clean room with wood floors, leather furniture and walls painted in pastels.

An overhead speaker system (playing "Lowdown" by Boz Scaggs on a recent visit), a flat-screen television with information on different strains and "edibles," and shelving subtly dividing the room and filled with various products, including cookbooks and candles, add to a day spa-like atmosphere. "We want something that is mellow but happy," Wellness Connection CEO Patricia Rosi said last month during an interview at the dispensary.

Wellness Connection operates four of the eight dispensaries in Maine as well as a grow facility, serving about 5,000 patients and making it the state's biggest player in what's fast becoming big business across the country, including in the Bay State starting as soon as this summer. Being a player comes complete with an active public relations firm, 50 employees and the headaches, occasional stumbles and responsibilities of running a competitive and sometimes controversial operation.

"We offer full health care, 401(k), time off, paid vacation and professional development," Rosi said. Salaries at Wellness Connection start at $12 an hour, she said. Although the federal government has yet to change its position on the legality of medical marijuana, the state collects sales tax on it and Wellness Connection, which is a Maine mutual benefit nonprofit (a nonprofit acting on behalf of its members like a homeowners association) gives 10 percent of what it takes in back to the community through partnerships with organizations such as the United Way, Rosi said.

Rosi and founder and executive clinical director Rebecca DeKeuster, however, declined to provide the nonprofit's total charitable contributions or sales figures. "I'm not going to tell you that," Rosi said, citing competitive concerns. "Just know that it is a significant amount." According to court documents filed in a lawsuit against DeKeuster by the California medical marijuana group she left to start Wellness Connection of Maine, the nonprofit expected to gross $7.4 million in its second year of operation through mid-2013, serving 1,119 patients. Minus expenses, net revenue for that year was estimated to reach $1.3 million, according to the filings. At that rate, and serving 5,000 patients, Wellness Connection would bring in $33.4 million in revenue, netting $6.2 million.

For patients, the cost is clearly worth it. On a typical day, the Portland dispensary sees between 200 and 250 patients, Rosi said. Even on a recent Wednesday, considered a slow day, patients – both regulars and newbies – streamed in, lining up at the glass-topped counter to buy small bags of marijuana, vaporizers used to ingest the leafy drug without smoking it and edible products. "Marijuana has been my gateway to a healthier life," said patient Garrett Guindon, 32, of Saco. "I wouldn't be where I am today if it was not legal."

Guindon said marijuana has helped him deal with ailments including chronic pain, high blood pressure and post-traumatic stress disorder. "My knees are in bad shape," the former stonemason said, adding that he also had a difficult childhood. Before medical marijuana was available through the dispensaries, Guindon said he tried a long list of prescription pharmaceuticals but was repeatedly told by his doctors to stay away from marijuana. Other medicines didn't work and often made him feel like he had been drinking alcohol, Guindon said, adding that it was a challenge to find a doctor to certify him to use medical marijuana as required under state law. "It was like a whole new chapter of my life had started," he said about using medical marijuana. "Coming here and not having to deal with sketchy people made a huge difference."

Marijuana allows the father of three – as well as two stepchildren – to remain active when needed, he said, adding that since he started using it in place of other pain medicine he has returned to college, where he is studying mental health and human services. Guindon uses a tincture – a liquid extract usually applied under the tongue – in his tea but also edible products and vaporizes raw marijuana. Using a tincture in the morning just helps me attack the day," he said.

Different strains of marijuana have different effects with two basic types: indica and sativa. Sativa strains provide a so-called "head buzz," which allows users to remain more active, while indica-heavy strains provide a "body buzz" and relief from extreme pain or trouble sleeping, according to patients and dispensary staff. Educating patients is a big part of Wellness Connection's mission, and classes are held at the dispensary on related subjects such as cooking and living with cancer, DeKeuster said.

Patients often willl blend their pot and experiment with strains that contain a mix of indica and sativa. Wellness Connection currently has eight strains, hopes to have 15 by the end of the year and even is experimenting at the genetic level, Rosi said. "The indicas are better as far as taking the pain away from my knees," Guindon said. Guindon said he spends at least $200 a month on medical marijuana, which is far below the average estimated in Wellness Connection's initial financial estimates. An ounce (about 28 grams) goes for $260 and up depending on the strain, according to Rosi.

Dispensaries are in a unique situation because they need to price the marijuana so that it's unattractive for people looking to resell it but also affordable enough for patients, DeKeuster said. Patients in Maine are allowed 2½ ounces every 15 days. Under the new Massachusetts medical marijuana program, patients are allowed 10 ounces every 60 days, which equals the same overall quantity but over a different time period. That's not the only difference between the medical marijuana experience in Massachusetts and in Maine. For one thing, medical marijuana itself is nothing new in Maine, where it has been quietly legal since 1999.

Mainers have moved beyond a simple and relatively under-regulated system of caregivers to a system of dispensaries allowed under a 2009 change in the law, and the lessons learned could be applied in the Bay State. Already, Wellness Connection of Maine has dealt with complications that include theft of plant waste, questions over its use of pesticides and a labor dispute. Wellness Connection worked closely with police, who actually staked out a secure dumpster with staff to catch thieves making off with (useless, according to Rosi) waste from trimming.

Wellness Connection officials have gone totally pesticide-free after being called out by state regulators for using pesticides on their plants. They now use a fully integrated pest management system instead, Rosi said. The labor dispute, sparked by alleged retaliation after attempts of staff to unionize, prompted the involvement of the National Labor Relations Board, which reached a settlement with Wellness Connection in February, according to a statement from the company. There are advocates for allowing the use of marijuana for other ailments, and DeKeuster says Wellness Connection is in favor of full legalization so that everyone who needs marijuana for what remains uncovered can have access. PTSD was recently added to the list but Tourette syndrome was rejected last year by the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the medical marijuana dispensary program.

Marietta D'Agostino, who manages the program, said the state is striving for consistency in its actions surrounding medical marijuana dispensaries and has established a good working relationship with the dispensary operators. "There are still challenges in getting them off the ground," D'Agostino said about the dispensaries, adding that she holds quarterly meetings with dispensary operators to work on outstanding issues. These include working on streamlining administrative processes, problems with banking and sharing ideas on ways to improve security, she said. "It's like with any other program," she said. "We learn as we go."

D'Agostino inspects each dispensary at least once a year or in response to complaints, using a checklist to examine safety, security, staff identification and state certification, drug testing results (if an employee is not a qualified patient they must not test positive for the use of marijuana), business paperwork for nonprofit status, sales records and inventory, which is checked randomly, she said. Massachusetts officials previously visited Maine regulators to find out more about the experience there, D'Agostino said.

"As long as the state establishes the guidelines that have the dispensaries running as a reputable business and that's what they have to do, that's what they're going to do," she said. Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said his department hasn't had any problems with the dispensary. While there have been cases of clients diverting their medical marijuana, the problem is not with the dispensary itself, Sauschuck said, adding that the more serious problems facing Portland are from heroin abuse.

RHODE ISLAND dispensary out in the open
South of Cape Cod, and a little closer to home, Portsmouth, Rhode Island, Police Chief Thomas Lee said the most important thing is locating dispensaries in the right area. Rhode Island, like Maine, had a caregiver medical marijuana program before dispensaries were allowed. The oversight problems with the caregiver program, which allows individuals to grow marijuana in their homes, are more difficult to grapple with than the dispensaries, Lee said. Rhode Island has two dispensaries that are open, including Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center on busy West Main Road in Portsmouth, which Lee says hasn't been a source of any problems.

Passers-by could be forgiven for not giving the 3,250-square-foot shingled commercial building a second look. There are no neon signs and the only indication of its purpose is a 2-by-4-foot banner and an occasional whiff of what's growing inside. As in Maine, after patients show their IDs and are buzzed through a small entry room, and past two layers of bulletproof glass, the atmosphere changes. A large well-like stone centerpiece filled with living plants is surrounded by tall built-in shelves and comfortable wicker furniture. A mural depicting a heavy-set Buddha adorns one wall. On a recent visit, the classic Grateful Dead song "Franklin's Tower" played in the background.

To the right of the entry is a counter where the marijuana is stored inside large glass jars and sold. The dispensary's "medibles," including marijuana infused brownies and cookies, are baked in an industrial kitchen along the back wall. Surveillance cameras cover the room from the high ceiling. CEO Seth Bock said he began working with local law enforcement early on and pushed the idea of ensuring the dispensary wasn't "down a back alley" but rather out where everyone could see it and see what was happening there.

"Security is given a very high priority at the facility," said Bock, who was also involved with a group that was denied a license for a dispensary on Cape Cod. Although he admits it sounds corny, Bock, an acupuncturist who studied eastern herbal medicine, but also has worked in more traditional health care settings, said he got the idea of opening the center in a dream about five years ago.

Ounces of marijuana at Greenleaf, which opened in June, run from $250 up to $375 and the medibles are between $5 and $15 each depending on potency. In a December 2012 letter to the state, Bock estimated $2.15 million in revenue for his second full year of operations assuming 850 patients served. The net for the dispensary was estimated at $182,694, minus projected expenses of nearly $1.97 million. Having studied both the Rhode Island and Massachusetts medical marijuana systems, Bock says there are differences.

Rhode Island, like Maine, already had a caregiver system in place that allows individuals to grow their own marijuana with 4,000 to 5,000 participants, and there's more flexibility in Massachusetts for what conditions can be treated with marijuana, he said. Greenleaf gets most of its marijuana from a small number of caregivers, but also has space in the dispensary for growing marijuana, Bock said. A spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Health declined to provide an official there to be interviewed.

Bock said his typical customer is over 50 and has a chronic debilitating condition like cancer. Behind the counter, dispensary manager Courtney David, 28, said medical marijuana is a good industry to get into. One of the biggest challenges is getting patients certified quickly, she said, adding that the dispensary is also unable to sell to out-of-state patients. Greenleaf patient Rita Lavallee, 63, of Tiverton, said she uses marijuana to treat cancer, pain and nausea. Before the dispensaries opened she would buy it on the street, Lavallee said, adding that now she has "peace of mind" and knows she's getting what she pays for. "I think right now, unlike any time previously, we have more options available," Bock said, calling medical marijuana "a sea change."


News Moderator - The General @ 420 MAGAZINE ®
Source: Capecodonline.com
Author: Patrick Cassidy
Contact: Contact Us
Website: An inside look at two medical marijuana dispensaries | CapeCodOnline.com
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