PORTLAND — A medical marijuana dispensary that’s scheduled to open in Portland next month is designed as a California-style wellness center.
Its operator is promoting a free coffee and tea bar, acupuncture clinics, support groups, counseling and a “welcoming vapor lounge.”
The new website of Wellness Connection of Maine says, “Patients are always welcome to relax and socialize near our fireplace, or enjoy a free cup of tea with a friend in our cafe space.”
The manager of Maine’s medical marijuana program says a dispensary with such amenities would violate state regulations aimed at ensuring that dispensaries are places to get medicine for serious illnesses, not places to socialize.
Creating a social setting for the dispensation of medical marijuana is unhealthy because it promotes more marijuana use than is medically necessary and puts users and the public at risk if customers drive home under the influence, said John Thiele of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services.
In California, which also allows marijuana to be distributed for medical purposes, many dispensaries have become popular hangouts, he said, and that’s one reason why California has run into problems with the federal government, which considers all marijuana use illegal.
“We don’t want that to occur here,” Thiele said. “You don’t encourage people to hang out in the local pharmacy.”
Wellness Connection of Maine, formerly Northeast Patients Group, is leasing a roughly 6,000-square-foot space at 685 Congress St., behind the Local 188 restaurant.
The nonprofit group plans to open its dispensary late next month. City officials say they expect to award an occupancy permit before the new year.
Becky DeKeuster, a former California resident who is executive director of Wellness Connection of Maine, could not be reached for comment to address Thiele’s concerns about the plan for the dispensary.
Wellness Connection of Maine opened dispensaries recently in Thomaston and Hallowell, and plans to open one in Brewer. The Portland facility will be the first medical marijuana dispensary in Cumberland County.
The five dispensaries that are open now in Maine, including the one in Thomaston operated by Wellness Connection, don’t have vapor lounges or the kinds of social amenities being promoted for the one in Portland, Thiele said.
While Maine’s rules allow qualified customers to consume marijuana at dispensaries if it is baked into food, they do not allow people to smoke marijuana or inhale vapors, he said.
Vaporization, in which marijuana’s active compounds are boiled off into a vapor, lets users avoid the irritating and carcinogenic effects of smoking.
Thiele said the state doesn’t plan to take action before Wellness Connection of Maine starts operating its dispensary in Portland. The state has given the nonprofit group licenses for exclusive rights to run dispensaries in four of eight districts statewide.
Timothy Smale, who operates the Remedy Compassion Center dispensary in Auburn, said no dispensary in Maine offers the kinds of services that are being promoted in Portland by Wellness Connection of Maine.
Employees at his dispensary in the Auburn Plaza counsel customers on the most effective ways to use marijuana for their specific health issues.
He said he strongly recommends that people don’t smoke marijuana, because cannabis smoke contains many of the same carcinogens as tobacco smoke. Instead, they should inhale vapors, he said, and his dispensary sells vaporizers that people can use at home.
He said his customers haven’t expressed interest in using marijuana at his facility or getting other services, such as acupuncture.
“We consider ourselves like a pharmacy — a safe and secure place to buy medical cannabis. You don’t consume your medicine in a pharmacy. You purchase your medicine.”
Under state law, patients must have certain qualifying illnesses and doctors’ prescriptions to be eligible to use medical marijuana.