Medical Marijuana Dispensary Opens in Portland Maine

The city's first medical marijuana dispensary, in a nondescript brick building at the end of an alley off Congress Street, opened for business Wednesday.

The dispensary, behind the Local 188 restaurant, is a well-lit, modern facility with bright green walls, light wood floors, a coffee and tea bar and, behind a counter that will soon hold marijuana pipes and rolling papers, a "community area" for patients, and rooms for acupuncture and reiki treatments.

Plans to mount birch tree halves to a wall, similar to a decoration in Wellness Connection of Maine's dispensary in Hallowell, ran afoul of Portland's fire code and had to be abandoned, but a white outline of trees is painted on one wall, awaiting the artist's finishing touches.

Rebecca DeKeuster, executive director of the nonprofit company that runs the dispensary, said the idea of the design is to create a setting where patients and caregivers can get natural medication and the goal is patient-centered care.

The fact that the medication is marijuana, which is illegal under federal law but allowed under Maine's medical marijuana act, is intended to be relatively incidental.

DeKeuster said she expects the dispensary to eventually have about 100 patients a month coming in for marijuana, which can help cancer patients -- particularly those who have nausea and appetite problems from radiation or chemical treatments -- and people who have chronic pain.

A handful of patients showed up for the Portland dispensary's opening, which occurred with little fanfare Wednesday. DeKeuster said she asked the patients if they would be willing to be interviewed for this story, but they all declined.

DeKeuster said the dispensary has a range of marijuana strains to offer. Some offer a stimulating effect to a person's system, triggering a better appetite, for instance. Others are calming and designed to help ease pain.

The marijuana can either be smoked -- a vaporizer is the preferred method, DeKeuster said -- or delivered in liquid form. The liquid, she said, is easy to use if patients prefer to ingest the marijuana in food or drink, such as a cup of tea,

Patients who come in with a doctor's "recommendation" for marijuana -- prescriptions aren't allowed for drugs that are illegal under federal law -- walk up to a locked outer door, controlled by a receptionist just inside. The small waiting room leads to the large community room, with access controlled by a keypad.

DeKeuster said she doesn't think security would be a concern, although staffers will escort patients to their cars if they're worried. A police cruiser was parked near the dispensary Wednesday afternoon, although city officials said there are no plans to closely monitor the site now that the dispensary is open.

Inside, the large room contains leather couches and chairs on one end and a group of small tables and chairs at the other end. DeKeuster said the community area is designed to give patients a place to meet with others to discuss their treatment. The tables are for dispensary workers to perform intake interviews to help devise a treatment plan for patients.

The marijuana, she said, is locked away in a safe and state law says it can't be consumed on the premises of the dispensaries. Seven of the eight dispensaries that Maine law permits are now open.

DeKeuster wouldn't discuss prices, saying that's a matter between Wellness Connection of Maine and its patients, but John Thiele, who oversees the medical marijuana program for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said most of the dispensaries are charging between $350 and $425 an ounce.

DeKeuster said her non-profit plans to develop special pricing for low-income patients and those in hospices. No insurance plans cover marijuana for medical purposes, she said.

Diane Schinella, a registered nurse who is director of the Portland dispensary, said patients or caregivers can simply pick up marijuana after an initial visit, but she hopes to follow cases closely. Finding out which strains are most effective, and what times of day are best, she said, can help other patients understand how marijuana can work best.

DeKeuster said the non-profit grows the marijuana it dispenses, on land in Thomaston and at another undisclosed location in Maine. Dispensaries are allowed to grow six plants per patient and patients are allowed up to five ounces a month, although DeKeuster said production isn't high enough yet to support dispensing those amounts.

DeKeuster, a former teacher in California, said she became involved in medical marijuana about a decade ago, when her father was diagnosed with lung cancer. Friends urged her to take marijuana to her father, she said, but she was afraid to carry it on a plane when she flew to be with her family in St. Louis.

After he died, DeKeuster said, she wished she had made a different choice.

"What if I had the guts to do that?" she said. "There was something morally wrong with a law that said I couldn't try a natural product to help my father."

DeKeuster said she got involved with a dispensary in California, the Berkeley Patients Group, and came to Maine after it passed a medical marijuana law.

Given her history, DeKeuster said, she feels a particular calling to the task.

"It's a moral imperative," she said.

- Original article from Kennebec Journal.

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