Predicting demand for medical marijuana

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Could three marijuana dispensaries survive in Rhode Island?

Early next month, the state Health Department is poised to select from one to three proposals for dispensaries that will legally sell marijuana and marijuana-related products to patients in the growing medical-marijuana program. Health officials are reviewing 18 proposals that applicants submitted two months ago.

Officials at the Health Department have been tight-lipped about the selection process. No one will say how many dispensaries will ultimately be selected.

The possibility remains that all 18 applicants could be rejected, but JoAnne Leppanen, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, believes that three will be granted licenses to operate.

“It remains to be seen who they are going to choose,” she said. “We are really hoping that we can get three compassion centers that work well together. We need real nonprofits here that are committed to the cause of the patients.”

Leppanen and others seeking to open the centers have varying views on whether it’s financially feasible for the state to have three dispensaries. On Tuesday, there were 3,239 patients and 2,039 licensed caregivers, or marijuana growers, in the program. Many of the patients also have caregiver licenses, meaning that they grow their own cannabis to deal with chronic pain, nausea and other medical ailments.

But just about everyone in the marijuana industry predicts that the establishment of one, two or three dispensaries will lead to an immediate surge in the number of patients, who must get approval from the Health Department to use marijuana for medical reasons. Several applicants said in interviews that the dispensaries will give the medical marijuana program more legitimacy, and doctors will be more comfortable recommending the drug for patients. Also, many patients have been reluctant to seek medical marijuana as a pain-reliever because they are uncomfortable with the caregiver relationship, or they don’t want to buy the drugs from dealers.

A secure dispensary that is regulated by the state will be much more welcoming, the applicants say.

The dispensaries also would draw customers through an aggressive advertising campaign. The proposal for The Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center, in Providence, calls for spending $3,700-a-month on advertising in the Providence Journal, Rhode Island Monthly, Providence Phoenix, cable television and radio.

A dispensary license will cost $5,000 and be subject to renewal every two years.

Dr. Seth Bock, chief executive officer, of Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center, in Middletown, plans on expanding his herbal medicine/acupuncture practice with a medical-marijuana dispensary in neighboring Portsmouth. His goal is to provide marijuana as an alternative form of treatment for his patients, most of whom live on Aquidneck Island.

Bock projects that he will have 133 patients this year; 333 in 2012 and 533 in 2013.

“I only want to be as big as we can to continue making high-quality marijuana and really please the patients and make the state happy while we are doing it,” he said. “We could expand if it makes sense to.”

Bock’s dispensary and cultivation site would be in a warehouse-type structure at 200 High Point Ave., in Portsmouth. He said there is plenty of vacant space in the plaza for expansion.

Bock considers marijuana just another Chinese herb among the hundreds he uses to treat patients. He said he would not recommend it for everyone. For example, he said, he effectively treats migraine headaches with other Chinese herbs, acupuncture and massage therapy.

“Marijuana is a Chinese emperor herb that has been around for 5,000 years,” he said. “But there are hundreds of other emperor herbs. I’m looking for a rational approach.”

The move toward establishing dispensaries, or compassion centers, has been a slow one. In 2006, the General Assembly passed a law that legalized medical marijuana in Rhode Island. Three years later, a second law passed that allowed the establishment of one compassion center within 190 days.

That has yet to happen, but it appears the first dispensary may be up and running by late spring. The Health Department is scheduled to announce its decision on dispensary licenses on March 8.

Leppanen, of RIPAC, said she worked closely with two Providence legislators, Sen. Rhoda E. Perry and the late Rep. Thomas C. Slater, both Democrats, and they agreed that three dispensaries was the right number for Rhode Island. As nonprofit organizations, she hopes the centers will place the needs of patients — not money — first. She said there might be a time when one of the dispensaries experiences a blight that damages its marijuana, and it may have to rely on another center for its cannabis.

Health officials have declined to speak publicly about the process, but it is clear that they are closely watching the explosion of medical-marijuana programs in other states. Much of it has been controversial.

In Montana, for example, the number of medical-marijuana patients has increased from approximately 7,000 in 2009 to more than 27,000 today. Last week, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to repeal the state’s medical-marijuana law. The legislators say that the program has spiraled out of control and the state “needs to build some boundaries.”

Montana has about 975,000 residents, 75,000 fewer than Rhode Island.

Scot Scheer, vice president at the proposed Community Care Health and Wellness dispensary in Coventry, predicts that the number of patients in Rhode Island will quickly triple to more than 9,000. He said his group, which includes his wife, Pamela Scheer, who has more than 24 years experience as a registered nurse specializing in psychiatric and chemical dependency, would quickly gain a large segment of the market share.

The group predicts that they would have 2,400 patients this year; 3,120 in 2012; and 4,056 in 2013.

“We are in the trenches,” Scheer said. “We treat opiate addictions. We are not just business guys saying, ‘This thing will make money.’ ”

Scheer said that 1,000 patients means 2,000 monthly office visits. The Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act limits the amount of marijuana a compassion center may dispense to a patient to 2.5 ounces every 15 days.

Lee J. Golini, founder of The Chronic Pain Management Center of Rhode Island, said he hopes his planned dispensary in North Kingstown would draw 600 patients by its third year of operation. He believes that about one-third, or possibly half, of the patients in the medical-marijuana program would get their marijuana from the dispensaries.

He predicted that about 20 percent of the state’s patients would continue to use independent caregivers who are permitted to grow up to 24 marijuana plants.

The medical-marijuana act limits the amount of marijuana a dispensary operation can have to the total amount allowed for each patient registered with the dispensary.

In Warwick, Summit Medical Compassion Center believes that bigger is better. They project that they would have 8,000 customers by the third year of operation, and they have the financial backing and space to expand. According to the group’s application, Summit has 18,074 square feet to grow marijuana, with space available for another 22,000 square feet.

“Not being able to expand to meet growth and demand would be disastrous in the medical community, and could result in patients seeking such medicine in unsafe or less desirable locations,” the application reads.

BY THE NUMBERS Medical- marijuana statistics


Medical-marijuana patients


Applicants for a state license to operate a medical-marijuana dispensary


Potential number of medical-marijuana dispensaries the state could license

via : Projo

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