August 16, 2010

Maine's first dance with Mary Jane

Dispensaries here will be modeled after California's finest, but with tighter regulations to avoid excess and abuse.

By John Richardson
Staff Writer

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.

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Emily Scarbrough smokes a joint at the Berkeley Patients Group clinic in Berkeley, Calif.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Grey, a clerk who asked that her last name not be used, helps patient Sara Romano select some marijuana at the Berkeley Patients Group clinic in Berkeley, Calif.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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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.


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.

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Additional Photos

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One-eighth ounce bags of marijuana that sell for $10 are stacked at Berkeley Patients Group clinic in Berkeley, Calif. Unlike California, Maine’s dispensaries will have a very short list of who can get the marijuana.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer


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