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

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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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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.

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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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