PORTLAND — 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 — 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 – illegal under federal law but allowed under Maine’s medical marijuana act – is intended to be relatively incidental.

Seven of the eight marijuana dispensaries that Maine law permits are now open.

DeKeuster said she expects Portland’s dispensary will 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 chemotherapy – and people who have chronic pain.

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

DeKeuster said the dispensary has a range of marijuana strains. Some stimulate a person’s system, improving appetite, for instance. Others are calming and help ease pain.

The marijuana can 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 with doctors’ “recommendations” for marijuana — prescriptions aren’t allowed for drugs that are illegal under federal law — walk up to a locked outer door, which is 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 will 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 monitor the site closely now that the dispensary is open.

Inside, the large room has 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 to discuss their treatment. The tables are for workers to do intake interviews to help devise treatment plans for patients.

The marijuana, she said, is locked away in a safe. State law says it can’t be consumed on the premises of the dispensaries.

DeKeuster declined to discuss prices, saying that’s a matter between Wellness Connection of Maine and its patients. John Thiele, who oversees the medical marijuana program for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said most of the dispensaries are charging $350 to $425 an ounce.

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

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 to use marijuana, can help patients understand how marijuana can work best, she said.

DeKeuster said the nonprofit grows the marijuana it dispenses, on land in Thomaston and at an undisclosed location in Maine.

Dispensaries are allowed to grow six plants per patient, and patients are allowed as much as five ounces a month, although DeKeuster said production isn’t enough yet to support those amounts.

DeKeuster, who was a teacher in California, said she got 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 its medical marijuana law.

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

“It’s a moral imperative,” she said.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at [email protected]