Medical Marijuana 101: What It's Like Inside A Colorado Dispensary

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Jars labeled butterscotch, chocolate mint and caramel macchiato tea glisten inside the lit refrigerator. The shelf above is stacked with pizza, flatbreads and butter. The one below has lemon bars, brownies and cookies.

The fridge could be in any higher-end grab-and-go lunch stop. But to shop here, you must present a medical marijuana patient card. And the ingredient list includes the type of pot, along with flour, sugar, milk, etc.

This is Trichome Health Consultants, a medical marijuana dispensary tucked into a line of glass storefronts on a semi-commercial strip in Colorado Springs, Colorado. As Massachusetts prepares to open its first dispensary, possibly in April, this is a glimpse into the future.

At first glance, it's a dizzying array of options.

There 11 different kinds of chocolates, granola bars, dog treats, lotions, lip balms and salves along one wall. Colorful pipes, vaporizers and other marijuana accessories line shelves. A long glass case is filled with jars of the classic product: marijuana buds.

Customers are buzzed into Trichome's sales room. There are security cameras at the front door and back door, and one that scans the room constantly.

All marijuana sold here is grown by Trichome.

"We don't trust that someone didn't use a pesticide or they may have powdery mold or pest issues," says Cami Hall, the CFO and a Trichome co-founder. "If you don't know how it's grown, you don't know how it's going to affect your patients."

Massachusetts requires that dispensaries grow the marijuana used in all products, a rule called "seed to sale." Colorado is less strict. Trichome buys some of the products it sells — the bottled teas, for example — from another company.

Every jar, plastic bottle or wrapper has a label that traces the marijuana to a specific plant. In Massachusetts, labels will list the breakdown of cannabinoids — the chemical compounds in marijuana — in each product.

Prices vary a lot. Those flavored teas, with 300 milligrams of marijuana, may be the best value at $16 a bottle, says Hall. Some of the higher-end strains of dried buds go for $200 or more an ounce.

Health insurance does not cover marijuana in Colorado or Massachusetts, and the cost of treating pain or other ailments with the drug can add up.

Kevin Bailey spends $600-$700 a week treating headaches he says date back to a childhood head injury. At Trichome this day he’s buying a strain called Sour Diesel, which goes for $175 an ounce.

"That’s premium, that’s grade A," says Bailey, who turns toward glass cookie-style jars filled with Grade B, or lower strength, marijuana buds at the other end of the counter. "It depends on what kind of potency that you need. For different people, some of these lower potencies aren’t good enough."

Bailey has been prescribed various pain medications over the years, but he prefers marijuana.

"This for me is best for me," he says. "Some people might feel like prescription pain pills is good for them, but in the long run that’s poison. I feel like it’s poison."

Patients generally figure out which type of marijuana works for them, and the best way to take it, through trial and error. Trichome co-founder J. Card keeps a database of every patient, their ailment and the types of marijuana they've tried. He uses the information to help new patients find a useful strain.

"So whatever patients we had with Crohn’s disease we can go in there and see that 10 patients with Crohn’s habitually used these types of strains because they seemed to work more than other strains," Card says.

Card is not required to track patient’s responses to marijuana and there is no such requirement in Massachusetts.

Bailey pays in cash, as do most patients at this dispensary. Trichome has been able to accept credit cards, but this is not a stable option. Credit card companies are not allowed, by federal law, to process illegal transactions. Marijuana sales are still illegal under federal law.

Trichome has had trouble finding a bank willing to handle its finances. The dispensary has opened, and been forced to close, six accounts since it opened in 2008.

Card says he’s worked hard to establish to Trichome’s professional image in the community and distance himself from the tie-dye T-shirt culture.

"Our consultants here wear medical scrubs," he says. "They train every day on how to help people with ailments, on which strain helps them."

Card only sells marijuana to registered patients and has no plans to expand to the recreational marijuana market, which is now legal in many counties in Colorado.

"My fear is that recreational [marijuana] is going to overcast medicinal and the true valuable aspects of the medicinal are going to be taken away because of the people who just want to use it to get high," Card says.

That tension — between the supporters of medical marijuana and those building the recreational pot market — has not hit Massachusetts yet.

Here, more than two years after voters approved a medical marijuana law, there are no dispensaries open yet. The first may, if there are no further hitches, open this April or May in Salem. So far, there are 4,975 registered patients in Massachusetts, awaiting the dispensaries.

Headshot of Martha Bebinger

Martha Bebinger Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.



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