18 compassion centers vying for a role in R.I.’s medical marijuana community

James Livingston figured he was all set when he got his state-issued medical marijuana card in December 2009 to cope with chronic back pain and muscle spasms.

But finding a reliable caregiver, or supplier, of the cannabis turned out to be a lot more problematic than he ever imagined.

Over the course of several months, Livingston’s relationship with two separate suppliers quickly soured. One talked a great game and provided Livingston with marijuana samples, videos and photographs of his crops. Livingston, who is unemployed and lives in Pawtucket, contacted state health officials and told them that the man would be his caregiver, a vote of confidence that gave the supplier a license to legally grow up to 24 marijuana plants.

Once the supplier got the license, Livingston never heard from him again.

A similar scenario evolved with the second caregiver. Initially, the arrangement worked out well. He was growing marijuana and provided Livingston with free supplies. That all ended after a few months. The supplier “expanded and upgraded,” Livingston said, and began selling his marijuana illegally to make more money.

Now, Livingston, 31, is done with the caregiver program. He has managed to get the marijuana he needs — about an ounce-and-a-half a month — from different sources, but he will welcome the arrival of the state’s first compassion center that will provide marijuana and myriad other services for patients in the program.

At least one, and up to three compassion centers, are expected to open for business by the summer.

“There will be reliability and accountability,” predicted Livingston, who is confined to a wheelchair and smokes marijuana several times a day. “They can’t steal my weed. They can’t sell it on the street. It’s a guaranteed place and they would always have what I need.”

On Monday, at 10 a.m., the state Department of Health will host a hearing in the health department auditorium in the basement of the Cannon Building at 3 Capitol Hill, to gauge what the public has to say about the 18 applicants vying for a compassion center license. Most of the applicants, all of whom must be organized as nonprofit organizations, have plans to open dispensaries in the Providence metropolitan area, but there also are proposals to establish them in North Kingstown and Portsmouth.

The directors, applicants, board members and security consultants listed in the voluminous applications are an eclectic bunch. Among them: William J. Lynch, the former state Democratic Party chairman and candidate for Congress; two former police chiefs, George L. Kelley III, of Pawtucket, and Augustine Comella, of Cranston; Providence Police Maj. Thomas F. Oates III; former state Auditor General Ernest Almonte; Robert G. Flanders Jr., formerly a state Supreme Court justice; Cuttino Mobley, a former University of Rhode Island basketball star who made upward of $50 million during a 10-year career in the National Basketball Association; and Erick Johansson, a pastor in West Warwick.

Johansson was arrested with his girlfriend last September for growing more than 180 marijuana plants in his church. Those felony charges are still pending.

Oates, commander of the Investigative Division, said that his role in the application by Innovative Solutions for Non-Profits, Inc. is overstated. He said that he has no plans to retire from the police force and he has no intention of working, in any capacity, for a compassion center. He said that he has informally met with William Walter, the principal at Innovative Solutions, and told him that he would be willing to review his security plans, at no cost, if his proposal for a marijuana store, a short distance from Providence police headquarters, was selected.

The breadth of the applications range from 423 pages submitted by Hope Apothecary Inc. of Warwick, to just 8 pages from The Cassandrew Group, d/b/a The Roger Williams Medical Marijuana Compassion Center, in Cranston. Some of the applicants plan on growing their cannabis crops in greenhouses in rural parts of the state, such as Exeter and Burrillville. Others are poised to devise complex heating and aeration systems in rehabbed warehouses to cultivate 6- to 7-foot marijuana plants.

And, there is big money to be had. Projections range from a modest $1.2 million in annual sales for The Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center, in Portsmouth, to $25 million for the Summit Medical Compassion Center, in Warwick. The projections are based on the anticipated growth over the next three years in the number of people approved by the health department to use marijuana for medical reasons. Since the inception of the medical marijuana program in 2006, the number of licensed patients has ballooned from several hundred to more than 3,000.

The most rapid growth has come in the past year with health officials issuing, at times, 76 licenses a week.

The organizations say they plan to hire new employees in high-paying jobs. The Hope Apothecary group, for example, would have a payroll of 29 within three years, including 12 positions that pay between $90,000 and $150,000 annually for such jobs as top administrators, horticulturists and security experts. Patients in the program have concerns about the cost of the marijuana and the availability of the drug to the unemployed, poor and others on fixed incomes.

The compassion centers hope to address those concerns. Marijuana users and the police say that the street price for an ounce of marijuana is about $400. The dispensaries, according to the applications, plan on prices ranging from $200 to more than $500 an ounce. Under the program, a patient is allowed to buy up to 5 ounces a month.

The Summit Medical Compassion Center group’s proposal for a store in Warwick includes a detailed discount plan for customers. Twice a month, patients on military, federal or state disability would get 50 percent slashed from the counter price. Patients suffering from cancer and AIDS would get the same deal. Summit would also offer marijuana and services without charge to customers who have less than six months to live, according to the application.

“Nobody is turned away,” the proposal notes.

Another applicant, MariMed Caregivers of Rhode Island, which proposes to open its business in Pawtucket, said that military veterans will be offered marijuana products and related services “free of charge or at considerable discounts.”

The proposed Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center in Providence plans on selling its marijuana for $200 to $300 an ounce.

“Any surplus revenue created due to this pricing approach will be used to support patient services, including free and low cost medicine as needed,” the proposal states.

Health officials estimate that at least 30 percent of medical marijuana patients are low-income and receive Social Security or qualify for Medicaid. Advocates of the medical marijuana program believe that the figure is upward of 50 percent.

The Slater Center proposal also talks about creating a professional image that distances the marijuana dispensary from that of “hip-hop or stereotypical stoners.”

The centers would offer a variety of strains of marijuana with names such as Bubblegum, Cinderella 99, Mr. Nice, Trainwreck, and Ultimate Afghan Kush. The strains have different levels of potency and some are specifically recommended for certain medical conditions — chronic pain, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Some are more difficult to grow and the harvest time can vary from 45 to 120 days, according to the application.

Leafy marijuana won’t be the only item for sale. Many of the applicants say their centers would provide acupuncture or yoga classes and they will have physicians on duty who can administer epidurals to deal with problems such as back pain. They will also sell baked goods, such as cookies, vegan chocolate bars and lollipops containing marijuana.

In Colorado, the medical marijuana program has led to an explosion in dispensaries. Scott Greene, director of Mile High NORML, a nonprofit lobbying organization working to legalize marijuana, said that over the past 15 months, about 750 marijuana centers have opened in the state and about half of them are in Denver. He said that the competition has led to a drop in the price of the drug from $350 to about $200 an ounce.

Joanne Lepannen, associate director of Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, or RIPAC, said that the compassion centers and the caregivers program can complement each other.

She is well aware of the problems that many patients have had with their caregivers. She has fielded scores of complaints about licensed growers who jack up their prices, get arrested for illegally dealing marijuana or simply drop customers.

But, Lepannen stressed, the vast majority of the state’s 1,949 caregivers are quietly doing a good job. She noted that there are many compassionate caregivers who provide marijuana to seriously ill patients for free. She also said that many patients who grow their own marijuana enjoy the cultivation process and find it “therapeutic.”

“If someone can grow their own marijuana at a minimal cost,” she said, “why would you take that away from them?”

On the flip side, Lepannen said that the compassion centers will give patients a safe outlet to buy high-quality marijuana. She said that a caregiver could take an extended vacation, or a blight, caused by spider mites, might destroy a marijuana crop. She said the compassion centers would be a reliable alternative.

In West Warwick, Andrea Vescera eagerly awaits the opening of a compassion center. Her husband, Jimmy, is in the late stages of Huntington’s disease, a hereditary brain chorea, that ended the lives of six of his siblings while they were in their 50s. Jimmy Vescera, 53, once worked as an engineer on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and his medical condition has steadily deteriorated over the past 12 years.

Andrea Vescera learned about the medicinal benefits after contacting a Huntington’s disease support group at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence.

Last summer, the Vesceras each got medical marijuana cards to help Jimmy cope with his deteriorating condition, which has slipped to dementia. Unable to smoke the drug, Andrea Vescera uses a tincture, an oil-based marijuana solution, to calm him down. She places a teaspoon of the solution beneath his tongue.

She gave Jimmy his first dose in December and it was the first time in a year-and-a-half that she slept for six straight hours.

She said she has concerns about the price of the marijuana tincture, about $180 to $200 a month, but she welcomes the certainty of a compassion center providing the medicine.

“That would be a Godsend,” she said. “Compassion centers are much needed. This is for medicinal purposes, not recreation.”

via : Projo

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