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More than a year after opening, Montville marijuana dispensary blends in

Montville — For a store that sells a product that was illegal in Connecticut five years ago, Thames Valley Alternative Relief has a pretty boring problem: parking.   

Laurie Zrenda and her niece, Meredith Elmer, both pharmacists, opened the Uncasville medical marijuana dispensary after a yearlong approval process in September 2014.

"It was kind of a big, scary endeavor," Zrenda said.

More than a year and a half later, a steady stream of up to 150 customers a day walk through the doors of the small shopping plaza just down the road from the Montville public safety building.

And business is booming — big enough that Thames Valley has outgrown its small storefront and the parking lot in front of it.

"It's been really rewarding," Zrenda said.

The dispensary's neighbors — a tanning salon, a restaurant and a dog groomer, among others — say the only problem is that Thames Valley has so many customers that sometimes parking space is scarce.

But besides some growing pains, Thames Valley has all but blended into Montville's business community.

"It's no different from a Rite Aid or a CVS," Mayor Ronald McDaniel said Wednesday. "I've had zero problems."

The Route 32 dispensary looks more like a doctor's office than a drug den. Chairs sit against the window in the bright waiting room separated by a locked door from the dispensary. 

A receptionist sits behind bulletproof glass as she helps a woman fill out her application for a card allowing her access to medical marijuana.

Even before applying for the card, a doctor must diagnose potential patients with one of the nine conditions approved by the state, including cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's and PTSD.

When Thames Valley became one of six dispensaries to get licenses from the state, town officials and law enforcement in Montville said they were concerned about the possibility of theft, loitering or customers consuming their medical marijuana outside the dispensary.

None of those things has happened, said Montville police Lt. Leonard Bunnell.

"We feared the worst, just because of the nature of the beast," Bunnell said. But "there's been nothing alarming or out of character," he said. "It's been very quiet, morphing into a regular business."

More than 8,700 people statewide have successfully registered for medical marijuana cards, 910 of them in New London County, according to the state Department of Consumer Protection.

Thames Valley is one of six dispensaries in the state and now serves nearly 1,300 customers, Zrenda said. 

Zrenda said she has been touched by customers whose lives have been changed by medical marijuana.

She said she has seen patients in pain go back to work after being bedridden for years and walk into the dispensary after coming in the first time in a wheelchair.

Some switch from prescription opiate drugs, eliminating years of side effects and dependency. 

"It makes you want to cry sometimes, the things that happen."

Thames Valley's menu includes dried marijuana flower and oils for smoking and vaping, but a chalkboard in the dispensary also offers THC-laced edible baked goods, honey and dissolvable mint strips.

Jackie Giordano, the owner of Rising Sun Tanning Salon next door in the shopping plaza, repeated concerns about parking space and complained that the shopping plaza is now known for its most unusual business.

"Everyone identifies it as, 'oh that's the plaza with the pot,'" she said. "It brings a kind of shady element to the place."

But, she said, she can't begrudge Thames Valley its success.

"Good for them," she said. "I wish I had thought of it."

Thames Valley does suffer some of the bureaucratic inconveniences of selling a product that is technically illegal in the eyes of the federal government.

Getting a bank account, for example, was a struggle.

"Nobody would take us," Zrenda said.

Banks' fears of federal punishment have stopped them from doing business with dispensaries across the country since medical and recreational marijuana, which the Drug Enforcement Administration considers a Class I controlled substance, has become legal in several states.

Only First Bank of Greenwich would accept the application for an account, forcing Zrenda to drive more than two hours to deposit cash and pay a hefty monthly fee.

This year Zrenda has hired a Colorado consultant to help file income taxes for the company's 15 employees, a process that is also complicated by her product's ambiguous legal status.

Besides those hiccups, things are going well for Zrenda and Elmer.

Last week, a legislative committee added six conditions to the list of those that qualify patients for a medical marijuana card, including ALS, sickle cell disease; severe psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis.

An ongoing effort to expand medical marijuana access to children and a proposed bill that would legalize marijuana for recreational use in Connecticut could both quickly expand Thames Valley's customer base, Zrenda said.

Eyeing that possible growth, Zrenda said Thames Valley is already looking to move out of its tiny shopping plaza. The company has made an offer on a new location with twice as much space.

But Thames Valley will stay in town.

"Montville has been good to us," Zrenda said.

m.shanahan@theday.com

Twitter: @martha_shan

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