There’s another milestone in the storied history of Salem. On Wednesday, the state’s first dispensary for medical marijuana opened on the ground floor of a former factory here, a few blocks off a busy thoroughfare.
Salem resident Wendy Atwood had a 10:30 a.m. appointment at Alternative Therapies Group.
Atwood uses marijuana to relieve physical pain. "I’m 53," Atwood said with a shrug. "You have knee pain, back pain, I have arthritis. You know, you just kind of get older and it hits you."
Truth be told, Atwood has been smoking pot since she was a teenager — long before she needed pain relief. But the option of walking into a store where she can buy marijuana legally is a change that she says is long overdue.
"I’m a law-abiding citizen, two kids, daycare provider, no criminal record," Atwood told me, "so I feel like I’m a good example of someone who can use [marijuana] responsibly."
But Salem police are wary. Chief Mary Butler likes the fact that during an initial period, Alternative Therapies Group is selling marijuana by appointment only. "I’m going to reserve judgment as to when it’s actually open — what effects or impact that has," Butler said.
Butler says no one will be allowed to use marijuana in the store or just outside. No prospective buyers will be able to enter the dispensary without a marijuana patient registration card issued by the state.
Bulter says it may be easier to police the drug, so to speak, now that the dispensary is open and fewer patients will be growing marijuana at home. The chief toured the facility before it opened.
"There is no, like, glass display that has all kinds of marijuana out that people are looking at," Butler recounted. "So when they go into the site, they're typically just looking at a computer screen to identify what it is that they are going to purchase."
After making their selections, patients pay and wait for a salesperson to go in the back and retrieve their marijuana, which is "totally removed from the client until such time as they’ve made the purchase," Butler added.
Police will be keeping an eye on how the marijuana is transported from the growing facility in Amesbury and then delivered.
Salem Chamber of Commerce Director Rinus Oosthoek has his eye on the dispensary too. He wants them to join his organization.
"They’re a hot prospect," Oosthoek said. "We would enjoy seeing them come in as a member. We’ve talked to them already, of course."
Oosthoek — who is from the Netherlands, where marijuana has been widely available for some time — says he’s impressed with the state regulations and the dispensary setup. He expects the chamber’s 570 members to welcome the dispensary, as they would any new employer in town.
"We’ve had no negative comments whatsoever," Oosthoek said. "People were just wondering mostly where the dispensary would go, and I think the location that they found is just off the beaten path but close enough to the other facilities so that it’s going to work."
But one of the largest health care facilities in Salem is trying hard to keep some distance from the dispensary.
"We don’t want to, in any way, imperil our federal funds," Margaret Brennan, the CEO at North Shore Community Health, said in an interview. "So we are really watching from the sidelines."
For patients who want to use marijuana for medical purposes, "that means that our providers, both physicians and nurse practitioners, won’t be prescribing at all," she said.
It’s not clear how many physicians across the state are willing to sign a marijuana certificate for patients. In Salem, Mayor Kim Driscoll says most residents supported the ballot question that passed in November 2012, making the use of marijuana for medical purposes legal.
"There were a fair amount of people who expressed concern for things that are in our local drugstores like CVS or Walgreens, being more worried about those sorts of things, the opiate addiction and pills, than they are about this product in this location," Driscoll said.
Driscoll has a team of health, public safety and other city officials who will continue to monitor this moment in Salem's history, when, for the first time, Massachusetts patients can walk into this licensed store, point to marijuana they want, pay and leave — with no fear of breaking state law.