Published August 14. 2014 4:00AM
Montville - With an H&R Block tax-preparation office on one side and a hair salon on the other, the region's first medical-marijuana dispensary contains not a whiff of a smell more pungent than fresh paint on the walls.
And that makes sense because co-owner Laurie Zrenda said it may be a while before the dispensary, Thames Valley Alternative Relief Center in the Center 32 plaza at 1100 Norwich-New London Turnpike in Uncasville, receives its first shipment of marijuana. Besides, no one will be ingesting or smoking marijuana on site even after she begins dispensing the drug.
Zrenda is taking appointments starting Sept. 2 from people interested in learning more about how the dispensary can help people needing medical marijuana, but it could be mid-month or later before the state's four legal suppliers will have any products ready.
"It's not for everybody," Zrenda, a licensed pharmacist from East Lyme, said during the first of three private dispensary tours for doctors and other invited guests Tuesday. "But it's worth a try."
Connecticut's law is considered the most restrictive among states that have legalized the dispensing of medical marijuana. The drug cannot be prescribed to ease general pain, for instance, but only for debilitating medical conditions such as cancer, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"If you have headaches, you're out of luck," said co-owner Meredith Elmer, a licensed pharmacist who is also Zrenda's niece.
Thames Valley Alternative Relief is one of only six dispensaries in Connecticut, all of which are regulated, like pharmacies, by the state Department of Consumer Protection. The 1,200-square-foot facility, the only one of its kind east of the Connecticut River, will serve seriously ill patients who are registered with the state's Medical Marijuana Program and are certified as being eligible by a physician.
The last time she looked a few weeks ago, Zrenda found only about 145 people in New London County had registered to use medical marijuana. Cannabis is not covered by any medical insurance plan, and no more than 2½ ounces of the drug can be dispensed monthly.
Mark Mathew Braunstein of Quaker Hill, a retired Connecticut College art librarian and curator who has been a paraplegic for more than two decades as a result of a diving accident, said he plans to be one of the first in line when the dispensary opens. A longtime advocate of medical marijuana, who testified for years before the state legislature in favor of legalizing its use, said in a phone interview that he has acquired the drug on the black market in the past to help him cope with his condition.
"It worked for me," said Braunstein, who is registered with the state's Medical Marijuana Program.
Braunstein pointed out that different strains of marijuana work for different conditions, so he plans to buy only small quantities until he finds out what is most effective for him. He added that THC is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana but that other chemicals are often the most medicinally important.
Gerri Ann Bradley, owner of The Healing Corner dispensary in Bristol who attended the open house in Uncasville, said no one is quite sure when the first batch of medical marijuana will be available because the product needs to go through extensive testing for safety and effectiveness before it can be purchased by patients.
Dispensary owners said prices are not yet set because they don't know what the growers are charging, though Zrenda said she is planning to charge at or slightly above the street price of the drug to avoid the possibility of people acquiring marijuana and then selling it for a profit.
David J. Slomski, a pharmacist associated with The Healing Corner, said it's unclear what forms of medical marijuana will be available to patients initially, but options include topical ointments, tinctures taken under the tongue, nebulizers similar to what is used by asthma patients and even e-cigarette type dispensers with pre-filled cartridges.
"Ultimately, this is going to be a model for the rest of the country," he said.
State-approved dispensaries are required because medical marijuana has not been legalized on the federal level and cannabis can't be sold through traditional pharmacies. Zrenda said she will be forced to give up her longtime job at Rite Aid pharmacy because of her association with the dispensary.
The dispensary includes a small waiting area. Only one patient at a time will be allowed into the dispensary, whose security features include bulletproof glass, motion detectors, two safes and numerous security cameras.
Three staff members will be on premises at all times, Zrenda said. All marijuana products will be pre-packaged, and cannabis cigarettes will be pre-rolled, she added.
The main patient space is painted in a soft green, with one consultation room for privacy and another large counter area where patients can sit and talk.
"It's like a doctor's office almost," Zrenda said.
In the main room, patients will be able to see information about prices and types of marijuana that will be displayed on a large board yet to be installed. A shelf behind the counter area will contain various drug-dispensing paraphernalia, including vaporizers and bongs, Zrenda said.
Zrenda emphasized that, by law, no one is allowed to smoke or ingest medical marijuana in a public place, including the dispensary's parking lot, and they cannot use cannabis in the presence of anyone under 18 years old. The dispensary will accept cash or debit cards but not credit cards because federal law prohibits the sale of marijuana even for medicinal purposes.
"We'll start taking appointments after Labor Day," Zrenda said.