Medical

Inside Portsmouth’s New Medical Marijuana Dispensary

Learning about the business of marijuana at RI's new compassion center

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On the day I visited the Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth, eight strains of marijuana were for sale: Green Poison, Jet Fuel, Diesel, Bright Stomper, Super Lemon Haze, Platinum of Kush, White Russian and Jedi Kush. The plush green buds were stored in glass jars neatly placed in a glass display case. The center, one of three of Rhode Island’s recently opened medical marijuana facilities, is housed in a one-story building that was once a car repair shop. The center’s showroom has the air of your typical day spa: an earthy, soothing color palette, wood floors, a gurgling fountain, plants with broad, green leaves. But there is also the giant painting of Buddha hanging from one wall, his face plastered with that preposterously goofy grin, eyes squinting in the euphoric elation of the enlightened. This you don’t see in your typical day spa. The marijuana is a little different, too.

Anyway, when I arrived at the center one recent morning, I was greeted by Mike, the security guy, who wore a pressed shirt and tie. Security is important: the center is a repository of considerable amounts of marijuana. So the patient will enter and show his or her patient identification card. He or she will have obtained this card from state, after receiving from a doctor a recommendation for medical marijuana, not a prescription, which remains illegal, and filing an application with the state, along with a $25 application fee.

The patient will then likely consult with Dr. Seth Bock, the owner and CEO of Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center, to decide which strain is best to treat his or her condition. The patient will make a selection and decide on a quantity, bearing in mind that the legal limit is 2.5 ounces every 15 days. The medicine, as Bock calls it, will be carefully measured and placed into a receptacle, be it a small pharmaceutical bottle or a resealable plastic bag. The patient will then go on his or her merry way.

Bock estimates that this happens about 25 times every day. The center, which is designated by patients as a “caregiver” on their application forms, currently has about 180 patients. Bock expects to see that number rise to 500 by the end of next year. Business is expected to be quite brisk: in application materials submitted to the state to open the compassion center, annual revenue for the year 2015 is projected to be $2,149,500. The center has an active Facebook page currently with 381 followers. (Here’s a typical, yet still somewhat surreal, post from August 1: “Good Afternoon! We are some new strains on the shelves today. Cheese Quake, Jack Herer, Holy Grail Kush, and more. We have a few grams of Blonde Hash left as well. Come see us! We are open until 7pm!”) It is quite extraordinary to think that all of this sprang from a midsummer night’s dream.

Back then, there were no plants in the grow room, a long, slender room at the rear of the building where the medicine is now cultivated. The room was empty save for three long wooden benches, on which the plants are now placed. Bock, a graduate of the New England School of Acupuncture, was there talking to John Emmons, his head grower.

First order of business: where are the plants? Bock explained that they planned to start growing by August 1, but that there was still work to be done. He pointed to a tangle of wires hanging from a hole in the ceiling. The electrical system was still under construction. Emmons, 50-ish and clad in worn jeans and a black t-shirt, has been working seven days a week since February to get the grow facilities ready. They were unwilling to specify which strains they will grow, and they were equally mum on the topic of their seed supply, a gray area, in legal terms, according to Bock.

Second order of business: OK, how then are you selling medicine without plants? We sat on one of the wooden benches which will eventually be lined with up to 150 plants, the legal limit. Bock explains that state laws allows compassion centers to sell excess caregiver medicine. Caregivers are individuals who, under state law, are allowed to supply medical marijuana to up to five registered patients. The Department of Health’s most recent program report, published in January 2013, indicated 3,415 registered caregivers in the state, each of whom are allowed to possess up to 12 plants and 2.5 ounces of marijuana per patient they supply. (The report also indicates 4,849 registered patients, two of whom are minors.)

Typically, Bock and Emmons visit the caregiver with excess medicine to inspect the product. “It’s like going grocery shopping: you can go to the store and immediately you can tell the bad tomatoes from the good tomatoes,” says Emmons. Bock nods in agreement: “Good analogy.” If it looks good, a sample is sent for chemical analysis to Know Your Grow Laboratories, a Providence company that, according to its website, “tests for THC, CBD and other cannabinoids in medical cannabis.” If the product is what the seller says it is and is free of harmful substances, the center approves the sale, which usually takes a bit of negotiation since price is unregulated. The marijuana is then sold by the center to patients who have designated the center as their caregiver on their application materials.

According to Bock, in the future, the center will stock its shelves with both excess caregiver medicine and medicine cultivated from plants grown on-site. However, he notes, the bulk of the center’s supply will be excess caregiver medicine. In application materials submitted to the state, it is estimated that Greenleaf will spend $860,750 on excess caregiver medicine in 2015.

Patients in need of medicine currently need to visit the center to obtain it. For some, this would seem to be worrisome. I ask Bock and Emmons about anonymity: what if patients don’t want to be seen by other patients in the center? The showroom, after all, is like a large store space, so there is no way to accommodate patients who seek anonymity. Bock and Emmons note that this doesn’t seem to be an issue, that patients don’t mind seeing other patients in the store. Never fear though: Greenleaf will soon begin delivery service, wherein patients have the option of simply calling in orders.

“The center’s patients really run the gamut,” says Bock. “They don’t fit the mold of what I think most people think is the average medical marijuana patient... the 22-year-old out to get high.” The center’s patients have a range of ailments: cancer, ALS, tourettes, HIV, phantom limb pain, migraine headaches, depression. “Some are very sick, and they really tug on your heart,” says Emmons. “Some make me cry.”

Bock and Emmons, who share a common interest in Chinese herbalism, are themselves card-carrying medical marijuana patients. Bock has Lyme disease, and Emmons had a spinal fusion procedure on his neck. “I take medicine only at night but not every night,”says Bock.

Greenleaf opened for business on June 1, after an arduous, multi-year process. In the end, Bock submitted two applications, one 150 pages, the last a whopping 225 pages. The latter application was approved after a three-month selection process. “The process was not very transparent,” says Bock. But Governor Chafee put the kibosh on the whole program when he received a letter, in April 2011, from the US Attorney for the District of Rhode Island, Peter F. Neronha, indicating that the compassion centers ran afoul of federal law and therefore ran the risk of prosecution.

Almost a year and a half would pass before passage of a compromise amendment that alleviated federal concerns. Bock began setting up the center. He obtained funding from private sources and, according to his application, from the Pawtucket Credit Union. Bock and a partner formed an LLC corporation and purchased the building. The center, a non-profit, as required by law, pays rent to the LLC.

About that dream: it was what set Bock off on this arduous road. It was summer 2009. Bock dreamt about a compassion center, a term he claims to have never heard of before. He knew about medical marijuana facilities but he knew them by the term “dispensaries.” That morning, he opened the paper and was thunderstruck to see an article about upcoming hearings on compassion centers, a central component of Rhode Island’s nascent medical marijuana program. He took it as a sign: this was his calling. As it turns out, this midsummer vision, this sign as it were, is anything but a pipe dream.