An empathy for people battling illnesses and an ability to navigate through controversy will serve Patricia Rosi well as she manages half of Maine’s medical marijuana dispensaries.

Wellness Connection of Maine operates medical marijuana dispensaries in Portland, Brewer, Thomaston and Hallowell, and has 50 employees. The dispensaries offer about a dozen varieties of marijuana to treat specific illnesses, or the side effects of treatment for illnesses, such as cancer or glaucoma. Rosi, 45, took over as chief executive officer of the nonprofit last year. She grew up in France and came to the United States about 15 years ago, when her husband took a job in Maine. Rosi worked for Pierce Promotions in advertising and marketing, and took the top job at Wellness Connections after serving on the organization’s board and working in other roles.

Q. Why did you go from advertising and marketing to medical marijuana?

A. Turning 40 somehow changed my mind and I was searching for something more fulfilling. I started looking at how I could do good, rather than just selling goods. I was originally a board member (of Wellness Connection), helped with marketing efforts and then became CEO almost a year ago.

Q. Is your job dramatically different from Pierce Promotions and previous work in advertising and marketing in France?

A. Actually, there are similarities. For instance, when I joined Pierce Promotions, that was a startup and there’s a lot to be said about building a company – how to build a good company and be flexible and solution-driven, focused on problem-solving and there’s a lot of creativity involved. That was my skill set and I’m applying it every day because nothing comes easy. There are a lot of difficulties. We’re a startup company in a startup industry in a startup regulatory environment. It’s fast-paced and very creative and what’s really nice is day-in, day-out, when I come in the dispensary and you see the same folks, they become a strong community. That’s what we’re fighting for, for seriously ill Mainers to access medicine that will improve their quality of life.

Q. How do you deal with being in a business that’s considered illegal under federal law?

A. That’s definitely an issue. It’s a unique status. We come with a built-in risk as federal-illegal and state-legal. There has been some progress, slowly but surely, there’s increased acceptance of what we offer. A few years ago it was straight-out rejection, but now we can have a conversation. It’s baby steps.

Q. Did some banks turn away your business?

A. It happened to us and the other dispensaries, some caregivers (who can grow marijuana for a limited number of patients under Maine law). It happened across the board. You scramble and find solutions. It’s unfortunate because this industry is at a tipping point from being underground to above-the-ground. We need to set the bar higher for better standards and better ways of doing business.

Q. Last month, the U.S. House passed a bill restricting the Drug Enforcement Agency from targeting medical marijuana businesses that are legal under state laws. How important is that?

A. It’s very encouraging. We’re getting a lot of signs from the feds about changing their mindset. It’s a huge victory for the entire industry, but it still has to go through the Senate. All the signs are pointing in the right direction. It’s not there yet, but it will get there.

Q. What would be the impact on your operation if Maine followed Colorado and Washington state and made recreational use of marijuana legal?

A. As of now, our mission is to help patients who have serious debilitating conditions. Whether marijuana is legal or not, this does not go away. People need help, advice and support. It’s not just a place where you come and get weed and go. It’s finding the right regimen that’s going to help these patients increase their comfort and quality of life. If anything, it will allow more patients to access the medicine.

A lot of folks could benefit and they don’t want to take that first step. It’s, “I can I ask my doctor, but what will my doctor think?” Some of the patients haven’t even told their spouses and their families. And then it’s, “Where can I get it?” People think the dispensaries are down some dark alley. We’re fighting all sorts of stereotypes. We will always be in favor of access, whether you want to use it medically or recreationally. What will matter is how it’s implemented and the rules. Maine medical marijuana is very engaged and trying to have a conversation that will lead to the right system. In Colorado, if you’re a patient, you have benefits (that recreational users don’t have), such as (higher purchase) limits. It’s not an either/or, you can build a hybrid system.

Q. Do people think they know more about medical marijuana than they really know?

A. You hear that a lot: “I know everything about marijuana because I smoked a couple of joints in college.” But there’s a lot to learn and hundreds of hybrids (varieties) with different benefits and different tastes. The smell will be different and the taste will be different with each strain. That makes a difference because if you’re being treated for cancer and you get nausea, some of the smells you can’t take. Beyond the strains – and now we’re offering 12 to 15 strains – there’s also how you’re taking it. A misconception is you have to smoke joints, but there are a lot of options for nonsmokers, whether it’s vaporizing it or eating (it in) fresh-baked goods. We do a lot of education and offer a variety of books and cookbooks and educational books and also seminars.

We also are very strict about a certain code of conduct we expect. We’re totally against (diverting marijuana to kids) and if we have any suspicions, we will report and essentially expel members. It’s very important that we exemplify the good of medical marijuana.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]