August 16, 2010

Taking pot 'out of the shadows'

Advocates say the availability of medical marijuana leads to a greater general acceptance of cannabis.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer


OAKLAND, Calif. - Steve DeAngelo didn't come west just to open the world's largest medical marijuana dispensary.

click image to enlarge

Employee Derek Flores, right, waits for a patient at a display case at the Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Calif. The center will be one of the models for Maine's first medical marijuana dispensaries.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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This is a small sample of the cannabis offerings in a display case at the Harborside Health Center.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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He has bigger plans.

"I'm all about creating a cannabis distribution model that will be accepted in the heartland of America," DeAngelo said.

He may be getting closer to that goal. DeAngelo's creation -- Harborside Health Center -- will be one of the models for Maine's first medical marijuana dispensaries.

Eight storefront dispensaries are expected to open in Maine this winter. They will expand access to the drug for patients in and around Portland, Augusta, Bangor and five other communities. They also will take marijuana out of the shadows and put it in plain view.

"We create an environment where people can look at cannabis and re-evaluate the way they feel about it," said DeAngelo, who is not involved in Maine.

 

No one expects Maine to turn overnight into Oakland, perhaps the country's most pot-friendly city. Mainers are already pretty comfortable with medicinal pot, however, having first legalized it in 1999 and then, last fall, voting to establish dispensaries.

Now, activists hope, dispensaries will get Mainers even more comfortable with cannabis.

"I think having dispensaries helps legitimize (medical marijuana). It breaks down some of the psychological barriers around this issue," said Jonathan Leavitt, director of the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative. "It's already the number one cash crop in the state. It might as well be out in the open."

Maine advocates say full-scale legalization is definitely a long-term goal, and opening up medical marijuana dispensaries around the state will help get there. But, they maintain, the first order of business is getting the drug to people suffering with serious illnesses.

"Our agenda is to get patients taken care of as a priority," said Leavitt. "Patients are hurting and they need their medicine."

Not everyone wants marijuana use out in the open, even in California.

More than 100 California communities have banned dispensaries, pointing to a lack of state regulation and cases of abuses and crime.

"There has been wholesale diversion (of medical marijuana) to people who have no medical issues at all," said Moses Johnson, attorney for the city of Anaheim, which is fighting the state's Supreme Court to preserve the city's dispensary ban.

Oakland, on the other hand, is among the communities that have embraced the movement, albeit with city regulations and taxes.

Some of Oakland's open attitude is due to DeAngelo, whose trademark fedora and braids make him one of northern California's most recognizable cannabis celebrities.

The 52-year-old once ran a large business selling hemp products before moving here from the Washington, D.C., area four years ago to open Harborside and take medical marijuana mainstream, what he calls "out of the shadows and into the light." His success at Harborside has attracted a lot of media attention.

"Hey, you're the guy I've been seeing in the newspapers," says one starry-eyed woman arriving at DeAngelo's Harborside Health Center. Another man walks up to shake DeAngelo's hand and thank him for what he's doing.

Harborside serves 700 to 800 patients a day and sold $20 million worth of medical marijuana last year, said DeAngelo. Any profits are either put back into the operation or donated, he said.

It employs 80 people, all trained to make patients feel so welcome that they keep coming back.

Wages start at $14 an hour, with health and dental coverage and a 401(k) plan, he said. The company won't disclose executive salaries, but DeAngelo did say that the company's average wage works out to be $41 an hour.

Harborside is new and clean, with bright windows, wood furnishings and freshly cut flowers. Its large main room resembles a bank or a high-end jewelry store. Eight employees stand behind a long glass display case loaded with marijuana samples, cannabis creams, lozenges and other products.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Patients wait in line for their medication at the Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Calif. Harborside serves up to 800 patients each day, did about $20 million in sales last year and employs 80 people with a starting wage of $14 per hour.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Steve DeAngelo, the founder of Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Calif., with his fedora and braids, is one of northern California’s most recognizable cannabis celebrities.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

 


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