WINDHAM–A company with ties to Windham was among the 20 or so applicants denied by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services last Friday to operate medical marijuana dispensaries in Maine.

According to DHHS spokesman John Martins, Igor Raquz, of Cook Road in Windham, is the chief executive officer of the Maine Wellness Group, based in Saco, and was listed on the group’s three applications. Raquz declined to comment on the matter.

Raquz’s group had applied to operate dispensaries in York County (District 1), Cumberland County (District 2) and District 4 comprising Waldo, Lincoln, Knox and Sagadahoc counties. Since state officials have yet to award a permit for a York County dispensary due to all applicants’ failure to meet the state’s minimum requirements, Raquz’s Maine Wellness Group may still have a chance to resubmit and secure a permit. Applicants for District 7, comprising the Downeast counties of Washington and Hancock, also failed to meet the minimum requirements.

While DHHS rejected most of the 27 applications to operate medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, the big winner in the selection process was Northeast Patients Group, whose executive director, Becky DeKeuster, said Monday she was “astounded” the group received permission to build four dispensaries around Maine, including the dispensary designated for Cumberland County. In addition to Cumberland County, the group also received the go-ahead to operate in District 4, 5, and 6 comprising much of the Midcoast as well as central Maine.

DeKeuster said the likely location for a dispensary in Cumberland County would be in its biggest population center: Portland. DeKeuster said she is working with Portland officials to determine a location.

DeKeuster’s intention to build in Portland may relieve officials in Windham who last month discussed the possibility of a moratorium. But the matter is not over, since the state’s selection of dispensaries July 9 was only a “first round,” according to Windham Town Manager Tony Plante, and that future rounds would likely result in additional dispensary sites.

When asked about future rounds, DHHS spokesman John Martins said, “It’s a new program which is in flux. At this time, I do not know of any additional rounds, and I don’t anticipate any additional dispensaries. But, with that said, it’s our job to meet the needs of the patients and time will tell if we’re meeting the needs of the patients. The goal has and is to provide one (dispensary) in each of the eight health districts. Whether that’s the right amount of dispensaries or the wrong amount of dispensaries, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Martins said the state medical marijuana statute would need to be re-written to allow more dispensaries than the one per district currently allowed. And, he said, “I don’t see them changing that anytime soon.”

Plante said the matter will likely be discussed at an upcoming council meeting, a desire Councilor Carol Waig made known at Tuesday night’s meeting.

“I understand the one for Cumberland County if looking at the city of Portland right now, but this is something I would like to talk about for a workshop,” she said.

‘Astounded’

DeKeuster worked at a California medical marijuana dispensary for seven years before moving to Maine last year after voters legalized expanded use of medical marijuana and approved the dispensaries. She said she couldn’t be happier that medical marijuana will be more readily available for patients needing the pain remedy.

“Thrilled isn’t the word. I’m astounded. We knew we had a good chance, but we certainly didn’t expect this result,” she said, adding, “I’m overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility.”

DeKeuster became interested in fighting for the legal distribution of medical marijuana after watching her father die a painful death from lung cancer. She said Northeast Patients Group probably earned the nod from the state due to the group’s board of directors, which she said consists of experts in several relevant fields ranging from pharmacy to law enforcement, social services and education.

One of the board members, Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion, has supported the use of medical marijuana since Maine voters first legalized its medicinal use in 1999. But he said the law approved by voters a decade ago was “notably silent” on how patients could obtain their marijuana or the rules regarding cultivation. Creating dispensaries, he said, will take some of the confusion out of issue.

Like DeKeuster, Dion sees Portland as the logical choice for a dispensary. He said the combination of public transportation, the proximity of hospitals and the concentration of medical professionals “will make it easier for patients to connect with us for the purposes of planned care.”

Secondly, DeKeuster said Northeast Patients Group stood out to DHHS officials because the group intends to be support services-oriented, meaning the nonprofit organization will funnel proceeds from the sale of marijuana back into the patients and communities where they are located.

“We will be a services-based dispensary,” DeKeuster said. “Actually, the smallest piece of the facility’s footprint will be the dispensary itself. It’ll more resemble a community center with counseling rooms, massage treatment, nutritional education, acupuncture, programs such as these.”

DeKeuster hopes to be serving patients in each of the four districts by the end of the year.

“We feel confident we can make this work. We wouldn’t have applied if we didn’t think we could do it,” she said.

DeKeuster said her organization wouldn’t only sell marijuana, it’ll grow it as well. According to the law, patients qualify to receive medical marijuana if their personal physician confirms that they suffer from one of several maladies ranging from AIDS or HIV to Crohn’s Disease and glaucoma.

Once approved, the patients would sign up with the dispensary in their district, which is then allowed to grow six marijuana plants per patient. As required by the new law, DeKeuster said the plants used by Northeast would be grown in an “enclosed and locked” building somewhere in Penobscot or Piscataquis counties.


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