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Maine's Medical Marijuana Dispensary Claims Progress After Complaints
09/06/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Six months after regulators uncovered pesticide, security and other violations at the Wellness Connection of Maine, the state's largest medical marijuana dispensary operator says it has improved its business practices and its relations with employees. With just 3,000 medical marijuana patients at its four locations, Wellness Connection still has the capacity to double in size, and a Portland referendum to legalize recreational marijuana could soon play a role. Susan Sharon reports.

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The Portland dispensary on Congress Street is the largest of the Wellness Connection locations, but if you're not paying close attention you can easily drive past it. And unless you're an authorized patient or a pre-approved guest you can forget getting beyond a series of locked doors.

Inside the dispensary is a large, sunlit day room with comfortable leather sofas and chairs, a counter where medical marijana strains are sold and a shelf containing herbal teas, topical remedies for skin conditions, marijuana recipe books and aromatic candles to help patients sleep.

"We believe in full spectrum wellness not just selling marijuana," says Patricia Rossi, the chief operating officer of the Wellness Connection. Rossi says the company has learned a lot in the past two years. The biggest lesson came in March when a consent agreement was signed with the state.

Wellness Connection had been cited for a series of violations mostly related to the use of low-risk pesticides which were outlawed at the time. The law has recently been changed to allow their use, but Rossi says Wellness Connection hasn't needed them in its Auburn grow facility.

"We don't need to because we have implemented an integrated pest management program," Rossi says, "which means that now we have beneficials - little microscopic insects - that are doing all the work for us and are not at risk for leaving any residues on the medicine, so it's much safer for our patients."

Wellness Connection is still facing a complaint from the United Food and Commercial Workers to the National Labor Relations Board, which alleges that the company unlawfully retaliated against some workers who tried to form a union. Leigh Ann Napier of Randolph claims she was wrongfully dismissed for her involvement in the union effort, and for participating in a walkout in Auburn back in March.

"I was one of the strong participants in the walkout that we did because of the different things that were going on inside that building where we didn't feel safe," Napier says.

Rossi says if the majority of employees want a union then they can have one, but she says right now that's not the case. She points out that employees are paid 43 percent more than the minimum wage and are offered a healthcare plan and a 401(k) match. In addition, she says, the company has opened the lines of communication with its 40-plus employees.

"Every month we're having very open communication and discussion about some of their problems, and trying to, most importantly, find solutions together," Rossi says.

One of the challenges that continues to face the dispensary operator is the public mindset about medical marijuana. Even though nearly 20 states have legalized it, medical marijuana is still illegal at the federal level. Many doctors remain reluctant to prescribe it themselves, even if they are willing to recommend it for patients like Colleen Jones Turner, who has severe nausea and chronic pain.

"I had four different doctors tell me to get medical marijuana, but not a single one would write the prescription because they were afraid," Jones Turner says.

Jones Turner says they were afraid that prescribing medical marijuana to her would put their practices at risk. She did eventually find someone who would prescribe it, and she's been happily getting relief at Wellness Connection in Portland for the past two years.

She says she trusts the staff and likes the comraderie. And she's hopeful that some of the fear will be eroded if Portland residents approve a referendum this November to legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of pot for recreational rather than medical purposes.

Becky DeKeuster, executive clinical director of the Wellness Connection, says the vote could change the public view of marijuana in general. "The fact that it is legal to possess without being a medical patient - that's going to change people's mindsets. That's going to change the frame of the conversation."

DeKeuster says the company is taking a neutral position on the Portland referendum, but she is encouraged by what she's seen in Colorado, where marijuana is now legal and where dispensaries are being allowed to expand into the retail end of the business.

"For example, the city of Denver has created regulations that say medical cannabis dispensaries that are currently existing, and choose to do so, may decide that they want to be a hybrid store and serve both medical and recreational users," DeKeuster says.

"Unfortunately the ordinance won't set up a mechanism for adults to legally purchase marijuana," says David Boyer of the Maine Marijuna Policy Project, which is organizing the Portland referendum. He says the taks of figuring out the distribution process under the referendum will come later.

"Right now, our number one focus is furthering the discussion and making sure that there is no penalties for adult use of marijuana possession," Boyer says.

Polls show a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana if it is taxed and regulated. Boyer is optimistic about the referendum's chances. And DeKeuster is convinced that it's no longer a question of if, but when, marijuana will become legal.



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