BERKELEY, Calif. – It’s 9 a.m. and as soon as the uniformed guard pulls open the black iron gate in front of the Berkeley Patients Group, a small line forms inside the city’s oldest and busiest marijuana dispensary.

Sara Romano leans over a glass case and checks out the day’s selection. She lifts a couple of samples to her nose and sniffs before handing over $300 cash for an ounce of Space Queen, a favorite remedy for anxiety and depression, she says.

The 39-year-old software saleswoman tucks the marijuana buds into a small brown paper bag, along with $60 worth of “baking marijuana” to put in brownies and crisped rice treats for some older women she cares for.

“Edibles are kind of a lot less scary for people who are just getting introduced to the weed world,” she said.

Maine is about to get its own introduction to world of medical marijuana, California-style.

Approved by voters last fall, eight medical marijuana dispensaries are due to open around the state over the next six months. Portland, Bangor, Augusta and Thomaston could have theirs by the end of the year.

Maine has some of the nation’s tightest rules about who can operate dispensaries and who can buy the marijuana, a clear attempt to avoid excesses and abuses that earned California a reputation as the Wild West of cannabis.

California has an estimated 400 dispensaries, but no one keeps count. There are said to be more dispensaries than Starbucks in Los Angeles.

Maine’s dispensaries, however, will be modeled after what are considered northern California’s largest and most well-run dispensaries, including the Berkeley Patients Group here and Harborside Treatment Center in nearby Oakland, Calif..

Rebecca DeKeuster, the chief executive officer of the group that will operate four Maine dispensaries, is the former general manager for the Berkeley Patients Group.

PART PHARMACY, PART BOUTIQUE

A look inside the bustling storefronts in California reveals an operation that’s part pharmacy, part boutique, part social club, and entirely unlike anything Maine has seen before.

“The best business in town. They’re busy from the time they open until the time they close,” said Roger Ramirez, owner of the Berkeley Auto Service a few doors down San Pablo Avenue.

About 700 or more people each day file into the Berkeley Patients Group, which is open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., every day of the week. It’s been in operation since 1999.

Some visit weekly or monthly to stock up. Others come back every day to relax, socialize and smoke their medicine. In California, patients can buy as much as 2 ounces per week. (Maine plans to limit purchases to 2.5 ounces every two weeks.)

Brad Senesac, marketing director for Berkeley Patients Group, would not say how much the dispensary generates in sales, although it is clearly many millions a year. Most of that is paid to growers, who effectively get wholesale prices.

But, Senesac said, Berkeley operates as a not-for-profit, which means its net revenues go into services for patients and donations to community organizations. It donated about $250,000 last year to organizations such as a nearby pre-school and health clinic, he said.

California does not require dispensaries to file any accounting of their revenue, expenses or charitable donations. Maine is requiring dispensaries to incorporate as non-profits, but there are no rules — so far — that require them to report revenues and expenses. Financial reporting rules may be added to Maine’s annual licensing standards, officials say.

The Berkeley dispensary employs 65 people. Entry-level workers earn $15 an hour, along with health and dental coverage, Senesac said. He would not say what the top officers and directors earn, except that it’s consistent with other non-profits.

SECURITY IS HEAVY

The first thing a newcomer sees is the security outside the building, a former used-car showroom with a circular glass facade behind a tall iron gate. The security staff uses 32 cameras to watch over the dispensary, inside and out; two unarmed guards also patrol the lot at all times.

Each visitor has to show identification and a medical marijuana registration card, proving they have a signed recommendation from a doctor. First-timers typically get a friendly introduction from the staff.

Then they enter the lounge, a bright room where they can smoke their marijuana or inhale the drug smokelessly using a special vaporizer. There’s free coffee, tea and snacks, and jazz playing in the background.

Richard Lahrson shuffles into the lounge, sets down his cane and settles at a small table. He’s not buying today, but came to the dispensary because it’s a safe and friendly place to smoke his medicine.

“It’s a great place,” said Lahrson, who didn’t want to talk about his illness. He packs marijuana into one of the dispensary’s bongs, or water pipes. He lights up and inhales as a woman at the next table rolls and lights a marijuana cigarette.

Not all of California’s dispensaries — often called marijuana clubs here — allow patients to smoke on-site, and it’s not clear if any of Maine’s will. Maine rules say only that the marijuana cannot be smoked in public and that employees can’t smoke at work. But state officials may revisit the issue to more expressly say that smoking on-site by patients won’t be allowed, said Catherine Cobb, head of licensing for the Department of Health and Human Services.

On one side of the Berkeley lounge is a room where, on different days of the week, patients might talk to a counselor, get a massage or have an acupuncture session.

And, on the other side is the store, where patients can buy pipes or bongs, cannabis lotions and balms, marijuana cook-books and ‘clones’ — six-inch tall marijuana plants grown from cuttings that sell for $12 apiece. The dispensary accepts cash and credit cards.

Ross DeGregory buys three ‘kush’ clones for his home marijuana garden. The 22-year-old, who helps runs a family painting business, said he relies on the drug to help with insomnia and to ease pain from a back injury that got him addicted to prescription painkillers years ago.

“I don’t think I could have gotten clean and sober without marijuana,” he said. “It probably saved my life.”

Before leaving, DeGregory also buys an ounce of processed buds that he plans to share with family members, including his grandmother. She is a registered medical marijuana patient, too, he said.

The heart of the operation is the actual dispensary, an open room with chairs along the back wall and a long glass case in front with samples of all the buds in stock, as well as edibles such as pot brownies and lozenges. Overhead, a color-coded electronic sign  shows the available varieties, including Super Silver Hazer and Purple Afgoo. Prices depend on quality, and range from $20 to $55 for an eighth of an ounce, or as much as $440 for an ounce.

Patients queue up as if waiting for a bank teller. Alan Clark, one of four employees behind the counter, explains some of the choices to a first-time visitor. Each variety of plant has different medical effects, such as relieving pain or increasing appetites, he said. And the effects also can vary from person to person.

Clark and other employees get training, and many of them also are medical marijuana patients who can speak from personal experience.

“I smoke for anxiety,” Clark said. “A lot of people here love the kushes. But, for me, they send me straight to nap time and I get nothing done.”

He usually recommends All Star Jack Frost for anxiety. “It gives you a heady, euphoric high and a sense of well-being. And you’re not all cloudy headed like you’re smoking a granddaddy or something.”

His pick for insomnia is Purple Afgoo. “That will give you some quality time with your couch.”

Relieving pain or muscle spasms could require a stronger blend, Clark said. “If you cross a purple with a train wreck, you’re likely to get something very heavy.”

For Sara Romano, Space Queen is the best medicine for managing anxiety, stress and depression.

“I’ve gone the (traditional) medical route with these things, and I’ve tried different pills. They may help on one level but they do bad things to your body,” Romano said.

She quit the pills and now sticks to weed, along with therapy, she said. “The depression is under control. Anxiety is non-existent.”

Having a safe, reliable – and legal – place to get her medicine has also been good for her health, she said.

LIKE CALIFORNIA, ONLY SMALLER

Maine’s dispensaries will be modeled after California’s biggest operations, but they clearly will be smaller.

Operators say they expect to start with a handful of employees at each site and that they expect to serve dozens of people a day instead of hundreds. Most project sales of $1 million to $2 million in the first full year of operation.

Along with a smaller population, Maine has far tighter limits than California on who can buy medical marijuana. Anxiety and insomnia, for example, are not among the short list of conditions, such as AIDS and cancer, that qualify a patient to legally use the drug in Maine. A state commission can add new qualifying conditions over time, but access in Maine is expected to expand much more slowly than it has in California.

California’s access rules are so open now that dispensary employees know they are selling some pot to perfectly healthy recreational users.

But, just as at a pharmacy counter, it’s impossible to tell just from looking who is really sick and who is not, said Clark. If a patient has a doctor’s recommendation, that’s good enough for him, he said.

Like Berkeley Patients Group and Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Calif., Maine’s dispensaries will blend into their neighborhoods and have plenty of security, operators said.

At the same time, the operators also say they plan to tailor the new dispensaries to fit Maine’s rules and its more conservative culture.

“We are looking to be as good as Berkeley Patients Group and Harborside or better, and that’s the cream of the crop in California,” said Tim Smale, who is working to open a dispensary called Remedy Compassion Center in the Auburn area.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com