At Salem medical marijuana dispensary, a sense of relief
SALEM — It was 40 minutes past 10 a.m., and already roughly two dozen patients waited in line
Access to the dispensary is by appointment only. A police officer stood by the entrance to the old brick factory building, and a private security guard checked off patients’ names from a clipboard as they waited under crystal blue skies.
Voters in November 2012 overwhelmingly approved medical marijuana in a statewide ballot initiative. But the awarding of dispensary licenses quickly became mired in controversy under the administration of Governor Deval Patrick, with questions about conflicts of interest and political favoritism. The system, stalled for months as patients grew increasingly frustrated, was recently revamped and streamlined by Governor Charlie Baker’s administration.
Now, nearly three years after the vote, medical marijuana is legally available to the 18,000 people who, according to state records, have the required physician certifications.
“We fought a long time for this,” said Peter Hayashi, a 59-year-old former neuropsychologist who was among the first to enter the dispensary.
Hayashi said he has a painful neurological condition — at times, cold air can make his skin hurt — and he has been getting medical marijuana from a Maine dispensary to ease his symptoms. Without the marijuana, he said, he has often spent hours in bed, his skin under covers to protect it against temperature changes.
“Marijuana has helped me be up and around more normally,” he said.
Wendy Atwood was waiting in line, too. The 53-year-old said she has used marijuana to ease knee and back pain from arthritis, depression, and anxiety. She also said she has long used the drug recreationally.
“I am a law-abiding citizen, a mom with two kids, and a day-care provider,” Atwood said. “It’s going to be very exciting” to walk into the dispensary, she added. “I’m happy that it’s not under wraps anymore.”
But the process was hardly speedy. Waves of patients waited up to an hour in line, and then, in small groups, were ushered inside.
They said they were shown a 10-minute video about marijuana and the types of strains the dispensary would be selling, although on Wednesday just two varieties were available.
Patients said they were not allowed to see or smell the products, and were instead shown pictures on a computer screen, using a system that staffers told patients they had learned to operate just the night before.
Patients said they placed their orders and then went to another area in the dispensary to pick them up.
Many said that the prices were higher than they had anticipated, and that the dispensary took only cash, but had an ATM for those who ran short.
Barry Levine, a 62-year-old self-employed lawyer from Marblehead, said he paid $372 for 1 ounce. Levine said marijuana helps ease his nausea from chronic gastritis.
Access to medical marijuana “is a panacea for everyone who uses it,” he said. “This for me is an old hippy’s fantasy land.”
About 120 patients had signed up for appointments Wednesday, according to the company’s security guard. Alternative Therapies executive director Christopher Edwards briefly stepped outside to speak with the guard, but declined a request for an interview.
Fourteen other dispensaries from Northampton to Boston have received preliminary state approval and are finalizing plans to open. At least two are expected to open this fall.
The executive director of a trade association for the dispensaries issued a statement saying the industry welcomes the opening of the first facility, but raised concerns the state’s testing standards for medical marijuana are too stringent.
“Massachusetts has the most conservative testing limits in the country,” Kevin Gilnack, executive director of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association, said in the statement.
Alternative Therapies was able to open after receiving a temporary waiver last week from the state that allows it to sell cannabis that has not been fully tested for pesticides and other contaminants.
The one-time waiver was granted because laboratories in Massachusetts are not yet able to complete the quality testing required under state health department rules, Baker’s office said last week.
But chemists at two labs poised to test dispensary products said the problem isn’t operations at the labs. The problem, they said, resides with the state’s guidelines, issued just six weeks ago, which set standards that are too stringent for lead.
The trade association said in its statement that the state made an errant assumption about how much marijuana patients might consume.
“A survey of available data showed that the heaviest users consume about 2 to 3 grams of cannabis per day,” Gilnack stated. “Connecticut assumed a patient might consume 2.33 grams per day while Nevada assumed a patient might consume 5 grams in a day,” he said, yet the Massachusetts Department of Public Health “based our testing limits on the assumption a patient could consume 28 grams — about six to 12 times more than what we’re seeing in other states.”