Medical marijuana, a growing local treatment option
Thomaston — When Wellness Connection of Maine opened nearly three years ago on Route 1 in a nondescript building, the medical marijuana dispensary began business with just four cannabis plants.
The clinic, in four locations across the state — Thomaston, Brewer, Portland and Hallowell — serves roughly 5,000 patients and has an off-site growing facility that can accommodate the cultivation of six plants per patient, said Director of Communication and Education Becky DeKeuster. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services inspects the operations yearly.
The clinic focuses on education, including offering medicinal marijuana cooking classes, and making balms for skin ailments and arthritis.
"We are interested in empowering patients to take part in their health care," said DeKeuster.
The challenge and interest in working with medical marijuana, she said, is that the drug goes against the traditional, paternalistic approach to western medicine.
Patients typically come into the facility one or twice a week or once a month and can choose from a variety of ways to use medical marijuana, including tinctures, edibles, and topical to treat arthritis and eczema. The clinic will soon be teaching patients how to make their own balms. The options allow patients who would rather not smoke still take advantage of the medicinal properties of the plant.
"We want people to feel welcomed, not threatened," said DeKeuster.
Marijuana is a federally-controlled substance, included on a list with heroin as an illegal drug, and therefore, was demonized, DeKeuster said.
"Now people understand it's a therapeutic product that's been used for thousands of years. It's safer than aspirin," she said.
Geary, a patient at the clinic who has been coming to the clinic for more than a year, said medical marijuana simply allows him to live his life.
Geary has Crohn's disease and is not able to treat his pain with Vicodin or Tylenol with codeine. Marijuana, he said, treats his pain and the nausea he experiences from chemotherapy treatment.
To become eligible to use medical marijuana, a doctor is required to approve the treatment, which is the only legal way for patient access to marijuana. The first step in the process is to have a conversation with a physician and agree the treatment is worth trying for a myriad of maladies. The doctor then writes a certification, and patients decide if they will grow their own, have somebody grow for them, commonly called a caregiver, or come to the dispensary. Six plants are allowed per patient.
There are certified conditions a person must have in order to be treated with cannabis, including cancer, glaucoma, seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder, and hepatitis C.
There are some juvenile patients who are treated for epilepsy at the dispensary. For a minor to be certified to use medical marijuana, a second physician's opinion is required as well as an OK from a review board.
If an individual suffers from depression they are not eligible to use medical marijuana. However, if they are depressed as a result of a cancer diagnosis, they are able to be treated, DeKeuster said.
Cannabis use remains illegal under federal law, but it was legalized in Maine for medicinal use in 1999. The state was the fifth in the nation to operate dispensaries.
Marijuana is a self-titrating medicine. Essentially, the patient is in charge of the dose they take, which can be a challenge for patients not used to having that control.
The cannabis is grown indoors, and the dispensary must produce everything it sells. Currently 12 to 15 strains of marijuana are grown. The cultivation facility employs 25 people, with expertise and experience in areas such as horticulture and landscaping.
DeKeuster explained that different strains are grown to treat different illnesses and maladies. To treat pain, she said an Indica variety is best for pain management. Cannabidiol components of the plant are used for treatment and does not impair patients.
Other compounds help with insomnia, such as the Indica family, which is more relaxing, sleep inducing, and physically analgesic, DeKuester said. A strain like Sativa is more energizing and uplifting, and also has value as a pain reliever, DeKeuster said.
There are hundreds of compounds in the plant that provide a range of therapeutic benefits, but only Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is responsible for causing a high sensation, she said.
Health insurance does not cover medical marijuana treatment, but DeKeuster said she hopes this will change. Wellness Connection has a price structure designed to keep the medicine affordable for all patients, but typically patients spend about $15 per gram, she said.
The dispensary has lobbyists in Augusta to educate legislators about the unusual needs and challenges dispensaries face.
DeKeuster said dispensaries are received well in Augusta, as they approach lawmakers from an educational standpoint in order to confront pre-conceived notions people may have about marijuana use. Local legislators Chuck Kruger, Elizabeth Dickerson and Ed Mazurek have toured the clinic to see the operation firsthand.
The dispensary does not use over the counter pesticides, yet, marijuana is not able to be certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture as it is an illegal drug by federal designation.
"It is as close to organic you can get in an indoor setting," DeKeuster said of the growing operation.
DeKeuster said she believes legalization for recreational use is coming, and hopes dispensaries provide a model for a safer, more responsible and adult relationship with the plant focused more on understanding than stigma.
If legalization was to occur, there would be a number of benefits for the state and citizens, she said. Legalization could allow medical patients and adult users to use the same dispensary for access to safe cannabis. Medical marijuana patients currently pay sales tax on the drug, but do not when picking up more conventional prescriptions at the pharmacy, DeKeuster said.
The dispensary is a non-profit organization, and DeKeuster sees this certification evolving if marijuana is legalized. She said revenue and investment possibilities for profit would make sense eventually in an adult use framework.
"This medicine is not for everybody, but overwhelmingly, it's humbling to see so many people being helped," DeKeuster said.
Courier Publications' reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at email@example.com.