PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- In 1999, Maine became one of the first states in the country to legalize the medical use of marijuana, but for more than a decade there was no system in place for patients to obtain it. In November of 2009, voters approved another statewide referendum, this time establishing the framework to create eight medical marijuana dispensaries. After months of work crafting the regulations, selecting the winning applicants, and building the infrastructure from the ground up, the state's first dispensary opened in the spring of 2011. Now all eight are up and running, but many Mainers still do not understand what they are and what they do.
"There is no cookie cutter approach," Patricia Rosi, the CEO of Wellness Connection of Maine explained about the process of starting a dispensary from scratch. "So, Maine designed a very unique set of rules for medical marijuana, they are very different than the other states, and from this unfolds a very different approach to running a dispensary within these rules."
She says they faced many logistical challenges before they could open their doors. They were required to meet a set of stringent regulations imposed by the state. They had to grow enough medical marijuana to supply their four dispensaries. Even finding communities willing to accept them, and landlords willing to rent to them was difficult says Rosi.
"Now, one of the biggest challenges I would say, is the myth of what we are," she stated. "A lot of people are afraid we are going to be dark, cave-like, smoked environments with potheads and dark alleys, and it is not as safe and things like that, where we are exactly the opposite. We are safe, inviting, welcoming, wellness centers that want to be not in a back alley, but we want to be front and center in our communities, and we also want to be good neighbors."
Rosi says all of the medical marijuana they sell, including what they need to produce tinctures and edible items, is grown at a secure facility in central Maine. By law, they have to produce every ounce from seed to sale.
"Being able to access medical marijuana is a privileged and it comes with responsibilities," explained Rosi.
She says each new patient is required to produce their medical marijuana certificate and a photo ID before they meet with one of the dispensary's employees who explain the laws, the dispensary's rules, and work to educate them on the different products and programs they offer. They also ask questions about the ailment the patient is seeking to solve and help guide them to the best medicine to address their issues. Patients are also required to sign and abide by the dispensary's code of conduct.
"It is not about just selling medicine. It's wellness centers. We fully believe in full spectrum wellness. We are offering seminars, education, also other products that will help," said Rosi. "Marijuana is only one little part of the regimen that is going to lead you into a better condition."
She says no one is allowed to smoke in the dispensary or in the parking lot. She says, regrettably, they have expelled members who have broken their rules.
She says they take security seriously, and work closely with local law enforcement to ensure patients and the public are safe.
Rosi says another myth she'd like to clear up is that the dispensaries are raking in cash and stashing it away. She says Wellness Connection of Maine is a nonprofit organization and is required to use any proceeds it receives on its operations or return the money to the community. She says they gave ten percent of their proceeds last year to a variety of other nonprofits.
"We are reinvesting everything in the patients, in our communities, and in the science of the medicine," she said.