November 13, 2010

Auburn site OK'd for marijuana dispensary

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The couple from Vienna who considered a building in Wilton for their medical marijuana dispensary will settle in Auburn.

Tim and Jennifer Smale's plan to open a dispensary in a former furniture store in the Auburn Plaza was approved by the city's Planning Board on Tuesday.

Marijuana likely will be available at that dispensary in the middle of March, said John Thiele, medical marijuana program manager for the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The Smales were selected by the department to open one of Maine's first eight medical marijuana dispensaries. There will be one dispensary in each of the state's public health districts. The Smales' dispensary must be in Franklin, Oxford or Androscoggin County.

They initially planned to lease a building on Route 2 in Wilton, but the building went up for sale and the Smales would have had to buy it eventually to stay there. Tim Smale said that buying property was never part of their plan.

The couple looked at 20 sites, they said, before finding the one in the Auburn Plaza -- a 10,000-square-foot space that was once home to Gobeil's Furniture.

Most of Maine's dispensary operators have run into roadblocks, including zoning problems and local moratoriums on dispensaries, that have slowed the process of opening facilities.

Thiele said only one other operator has nailed down a location. Leo Trudel, who will run the dispensary in Aroostook County, started cultivating marijuana at his site in Frenchville at the beginning of October and plans to open in January.

Thiele said he expects to inspect the Smales' site in mid-December. He hopes the other dispensaries will be ready for inspections by then.

Tim Smale wouldn't predict when the dispensary will open, though Thiele said March would be a reasonable target. Smale said they still must sign a lease with the building owner, get permits from the city, have electrical and fire inspections, renovate the space and grow the plants.

"Everybody's looking toward the medical marijuana dispensaries to open responsibly, but quickly, and I think we're doing that," he said.

Tim Smale uses medical marijuana to treat migraines. The couple said they spent nine months in California to learn about operating a medical marijuana dispensary.

As soon as the dispensary starts selling marijuana, Smale said, a delivery service will start driving it to patients who aren't physically able or can't afford to leave their homes. Smale said he hasn't decided whether to charge a delivery fee and is waiting to figure out what the demand for that service is.

Thiele said all dispensaries will be required to offer delivery. Smale said he plans to provide that service to patients beyond western Maine.

Many patients are frustrated by how long it's taking for the dispensaries to open, said Charles Wynott, executive director of the Westbrook-based Maine Medical Marijuana Resource Center.

"They expected it to happen the day after the vote," he said, referring to the November 2009 referendum on allowing dispensaries in the state.

Wynott said he believes the operators selected by the state are doing everything they can to open the clinics.

Regardless of when that happens, medical marijuana patients must register with the state by Jan. 1 to use the drug legally. Previously, a doctor's letter was enough proof for patients to have and use marijuana. As of the first day of 2011, patients who are carrying the drug but don't have registration cards could be arrested.

Thiele said his office has received 300 applications for registration cards. So far, 100 cards have been issued, 100 others are being processed, and the rest are on his desk. About 35 new applications come in each day, and that's keeping the program's two-person staff busy, Thiele said.

The application asks each patient for a doctor's letter and a $100 fee. Patients on Maine-Care pay $75. Thiele said processing an application takes about 10 days -- if it's filled out completely and correctly. Many of them haven't been, he said.

Thiele, former director of MaineGeneral Medical Center's Horizon Program for people who are HIV-positive, started managing the state's medical marijuana program in September. He said opening the dispensaries is taking about as long as he thought it would.

"There was a lot of trepidation on the part of the towns and the councilors and the city managers," he said. "I think they're working through that, and they're doing that at different speeds."

 

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