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Could Maine’s medical marijuana program serve as a model for New Hampshire?



Last modified: Sunday, December 07, 2014
Blocks away from the town’s central business district, across the street from a Subway restaurant and a Hannaford grocery store, overlooking the edge of the Kennebec River, the Maine town of Gardiner’s first medical marijuana dispensary is set to open for business Tuesday morning.

Inside a historic train station that had been vacant for years – its brick walls accented in chartreuse, string lights weaving alongside cannabis strains in pristine display cases, a large leather couch within arm’s reach of a tabletop zen garden – the place feels like a freshly renovated Starbucks. An open house last week welcomed the public inside for a first look, but once it officially starts operating, it will be off-limits to anyone outside of staff, qualified patients and caregivers.

As the Wellness Connection of Maine, which owns half of that state’s eight dispensaries and caters to almost 5,000 qualified patients, transitions to this new space in the heart of a small town of 5,600 people, it’s also turning its eyes southward. Its operators are eagerly awaiting the green light to apply for a spot in New Hampshire’s still-developing therapeutic cannabis program.

Just when that green light will come is anyone’s guess.

New Hampshire has until Jan. 23 to select at least two “alternative treatment centers” to open here (as long as it receives at least two applications that score high enough to meet its standards), according to the law creating the state’s medical marijuana program that was signed into effect in July 2013. At most, the state will license four alternative centers divided up among four distinct geographic areas.

The next step toward that January deadline involves giving anyone interested in operating a medical marijuana “alternative treatment center” – New Hampshire’s version of a dispensary – a chance to apply for one of the available spots. This has not yet happened.

The Department of Health and Human Services is preparing a request for applications but has not provided any details on when that request will be released, how long the application window will be open and when the selections will be made.

When asked Wednesday about the department’s plans on when it will release the request, state coordinator Michael Holt said the department is in the process of working out the details of the applications “and will release it as soon as possible.” Holt said he expects it to be the “next couple of weeks” but would not be more specific.

Holt said details about the application and selection process are addressed in the requests for proposals and therefore can’t be discussed before the request is published. When asked if it was possible to speak broadly about the kind of considerations the department is taking into account as it crafts its request for applications, Holt said that’s also prohibited.

“I can’t talk about any details contained in the RFA,” Holt said.

Eric Borrin, the department’s director of contracts and procurement, said there’s no written policy that governs what can and can’t be disclosed about these documents. But the department declines to discuss details, Borrin said, to avoid giving anyone an unfair advantage.

Potential applicants might get upset, Borrin said, if the department ended up deviating from its previously stated timeline.

Meanwhile, the department is up against the clock – and the law. Holt, who along with other state officials has previously said the state was on track to abide by the legislative timeline, said last week that it’s not possible to say with certainty that the department will make the necessary selections by Jan. 23. It hinges on “the timing of the issuance of the RFA,” he said.

“We hope to,” Holt said. “We need to give people ample time to respond and have to provide ample time to review. Can that happen before Jan. 23? I can’t tell you that. I don’t know.”

Department officials are “working as diligently as possible” to prepare the application request, he said, and have been meeting to talk about the issue every day. When the request is ready to go, Borrin said it will be posted online.

Statewide system

Across the border in Maine, medical marijuana has been legal in some form for years. But problems arose, as the state explains online, because “the law lacked any distribution mechanism and questions arose of noncompliance with federal law and of how patients could legally obtain the prescribed marijuana.”

Through a ballot measure in 2009, the state approved the creation of a statewide system to distribute medical marijuana. Wellness Connection, the company thinking of coming to New Hampshire, opened its first dispensary in 2011. It now operates dispensaries in Portland, Brewer, Thomaston and, soon, Gardiner.

The Gardiner location will replace a previous location in Hallowell that had become too small, Wellness Connection CEO Patricia Rosi said. This new space also allows the company to combine its dispensary operation and a kitchen, where it produces edibles infused with therapeutic cannabis, under the same roof.

As Wellness Connection and other Maine dispensaries have worked to establish themselves as credible, sound businesses, Rosi said lessons have been learned at every step. It’s imperative, for one, to make sure everyone – the state, the dispensaries and other parties – are on the same page about the interpretation of the rules for medical marijuana.

And then, Rosi said, there’s the issue of finding a community that’s “willing to accept you.” In Gardiner, for example, Rosi said the buy-in from town officials, some of whom were initially hesitant about the prospect of hosting a dispensary, was imperative.

There’s also the issue of finding a landlord willing to work with a dispensary and a location that’s not too “back alley,” in Rosi’s words. In Gardiner, the train station was a prime spot, Rosi said: Not only does it have ample nearby parking and an entrance accessible to patients with mobility issues, but the entrance itself faces away from the street, overlooking the river. This affords an added layer of privacy to patients, she and other Wellness Connection employees explained.

“Being able to offer credit cards is an adventure. Being able to offer delivery is an adventure,” Rosi said. “Everything. You have to find something, someone who is willing to go beyond the stigma. That’s what’s really important: This is a sound business with very clear, standard practices and processes. It’s everything that people think it’s not.”

On the surface – marijuana samples and vaporizers aside – Wellness Connection looks a lot like your average fledgling business. Its website offers information on medical marijuana and the various products offered in the dispensary locations, includes a section on recipes (Chipotle Cannabis Salsa and Garrets Medicated Wings), and the company takes a robust approach to promotional campaigns. It even offered a deal on Black Friday.

Oversight issues

Since the creation of the distribution program, Maine’s dispensaries have even formed a professional organization to collaborate on best practices and work through challenges as they adjust to the growing pains of this new industry.

To be sure, Maine’s medical marijuana program has not been entirely problem-free. As reported by the Portland Press Herald in September, there have been issues surrounding oversight over the growing operations of “small-scale caregivers,” for example.

Wellness Connection also faced labor allegations that it “retaliated against employees who raised concerns about pesticide use, interfered with workers’ rights to unionize and solicited workers to oppose the union,” according to the Press Herald . The company reached a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board earlier this year, according to American City Business Journals .

Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, and others said New Hampshire has a lot to learn from its neighbor to the north.

“Maine had a very patient-friendly medical marijuana law compared to New Hampshire,” Simon said, noting the ability to obtain a certification directly from a physician and the ability to cultivate marijuana at home.

Unlike Maine, New Hampshire does not allow patients or caregivers to grow their own medical marijuana. State Rep. Ted Wright and Sen. John Reagan plan to introduce legislation that would change that in the year ahead.

Other forthcoming legislative fixes include an effort to clarify the tax requirements around the alternative treatment centers, which are nonprofits, and to align the qualifying medical conditions spelled out in the law with those outlined in the rules for getting a patient identification card.

Expanding the law to allow home growing would be an important step toward expanding access to the substance, Reagan said: “It allows poor people to be able to grow the very thing God gave them to get relief from their symptoms.”

Jacques Santucci, Wellness Connection’s chief financial officer, estimated that it could take about seven to nine months to open an alternative treatment center in New Hampshire, if selected. Just growing the plants would likely take 3½ to four months, he said.

Santucci said the lack of a home cultivation option in New Hampshire makes it all the more imperative for prospective alternative treatment centers to move swiftly toward opening.

“That proves we got to get going as fast as we can because there are a lot of people who are in need,” he said, “and we have to find a way to help.”



(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or 
cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)