Operator of Maine’s first medical marijuana facility talks about two years of business

Last modified: Tuesday, May 28, 2013
New Hampshire legislators and Gov. Maggie Hassan will soon attempt to reconcile their differences on a bill that could make New Hampshire the last New England state to allow medical use of marijuana. Hassan has indicated she supports a tightly controlled program that wouldn’t allow patients or caregivers to grow the plants themselves.

Last week, the Senate approved a bill that aligns with Hassan’s wishes, but the House has passed a version of the bill that includes the home-growing option.

Tim Smale is founder and executive director of the nonprofit Remedy Compassion Center in Auburn, Maine, which celebrated its two-year anniversary Saturday. Remedy Compassion Center was the first marijuana dispensary to open in Maine, and the first east of the Mississippi River, after Maine authorized medical marijuana almost three years ago. Maine’s law allows the state to license eight dispensaries and home-grow programs.

Why did you get into this business?

It was based on me. I found that the other medications didn’t work to control my migraine condition. . . . I had been managing it for 30 years with a variety of medications and doctors and nothing was successful. I found in research that cannabis had successfully treated migraines for hundreds of years. At the time, I was living in Maine and in California part of the year each, and I convinced my doctor in California to give me certification to obtain marijuana at a dispensary there. . . .Cannabis stopped the nausea and allowed me to sleep.

After I put my daughter through college, my wife and I planned to take some time off in a sailboat. I couldn’t bring cannabis because we were inspected on board, and I suffered severely through what was supposed to be the best time in my life. At the end of the trip . . . I was the proverbially 50-year-old MBA without a job. I decided after about a month to write a letter to the largest dispensary in the nation, tell them I want to get involved, help others like myself, and he hired me as general manager of a consulting company helping dispensary owners. . . . When Maine’s law passed to allow dispensaries, we came back to our home here.

What did you have to do between the passage of the law and opening day for the center? How much of a capital investment is it to open a dispensary, and how long does it take to get everything in order?

I know from my consulting work, generally, it’s going to be from $500,000 to a million-dollar investment for a dispensary to open depending on the amount of staffing and products. . . . In Maine, after the law passed, there was a six-month process where they had basically the bid process and then there was another six-month process in selecting the winners for the eight dispensary positions, and rule-making. . . . There’s a lot of time and effort spent in securing the facility and working with local towns with their regulations. We looked at 34 facilities before we landed on this one. In order to do this right you have to be in the right location, and you have to work with your local institutions with their rules and be situated properly, not too close to schools and things like that.

Though you’re a nonprofit organization, you have costs and revenue. How have the first two years of operation been, business-wise?

It’s going very well. All of our people are highly paid: we start at $13 an hour and bring people up quickly to a goal of having everybody make in the mid-$30,000 range, because that’s a living wage in Maine.

Almost everyone is a full-time employee, and we offer medical benefits and a 401(k) benefit.

What are some things you look for in employees?

Most of our employees happen to be patients as well. It’s important to us that they have compassion and basically the love and motivation to serve others, that’s the biggest requirement. The second thing we look for is basically morals: character and integrity, honesty, a rare quality in today’s world.

So a lot of people we have hired have come in as patients, and fellow employees have liked them so much we’ve asked them to apply.

How do you train them to go from the patient side of the counter to the employee side?

All of our training is on the job. You don’t necessarily need to come qualified in any one skill, but the ability to serve and be exceptional in character is important. We train in all the departments so that everyone is trained in at least two or three assignments.

In the company, there are duties all the way from security to working with patients in sales, and then we have folks that work in processing, packaging and trimming, baking, making of all of our food products and lotions and tinctures, and back all the way to the garden.

What kind of relationship do you have with the state government?

The state comes in all the time to inspect. They’ve been in twice this year already.

And what about with the IRS?

Well, we are a nonprofit, but we still operate as a for-profit according to the IRS. We don’t get the deductions that normal businesses get. They get to deduct their payroll, electricity, other expenses.

But the IRS considers us to be an illicit activity. Mostly we just file our taxes as a normal business as any other company would.

As a dispensary operator, how do you feel about home-grow provisions?

Maine allows it and most states do. I’m not concerned whatsoever. We have a viable patient-growing and caregiver model, which allows for sometimes a friend or relative or somebody who is very trusted who can help. Maine has a very viable caregiver marketplace with some 900 caregivers licensed by the state. It doesn’t take away from dispensary business. We find it’s good for the patient; not many do have the ability to grow, but for those who can, it’s quite therapeutic. It also gives them access to some lower price medicine.

And as a patient, I can speak from a patient point of view: The ability to grow my own medicine is one of those basic, human rights. It seems very unusual that we can grow tomatoes, that we can grow most anything, but to say we can’t grow this plant. This is a product that is quite safe for us to grow with proper precautions, with proper safety.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)