Medical Marijuana Stores: More Spa, Less Pharmacy

May 29, 2013

In April, Rhode Island’s first medical marijuana dispensary – the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center - opened for business in Providence. This weekend, the second is scheduled to open in Portsmouth. We visited the Greenleaf compassion center as workers rushed to finish the stylish interior.

The marijuana might be medical, but the retail space is anything but.

“You’ll walk up to this outside door, you’ll get buzzed in through this door, and then you’ll be standing in the vestibule….”

Seth Bock, owner of the Greenleaf compassion center.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

Seth Bock is giving a tour of the boutique-sized medical marijuana store he’s opening on West Main Road in Portsmouth. Everything about it is starting to look like a boutique, except the entrance.

…and you’ll hold your card up to the bulletproof window,” says Bock.

Your state-issued medical marijuana card, that is.

Traffic is rushing by on this sunny Aquidneck Island afternoon, and the door is propped open to let the breeze in. It’s helping cool a crew of construction workers busy sawing, hammering, and drilling away inside. They’re getting Bock’s shop ready for customers in a matter of days.

Bock continues the tour past a pair of glass cases beneath a long, elegant wood countertop.

Display cases, ready for product, inside the Greenleaf compassion center
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

“And then we’ll come over this way, and people will be able to up to this counter here and they’ll be able to look at the medical marijuana behind the display case, and ask questions about it…”

Bock is tall and lanky, laid back but serious. His background seems perfectly suited to opening a medical marijuana business. He’s owned an acupuncture practice and spa for several years. Plus he’s got a master’s degree in Chinese herbal medicine. Although the main retail space is still mostly bare walls and fixtures, that spa feeling is already coming through.

“We’re building a fountain, and we’re going to have bamboo plants in here, so a little bit of an eastern, tranquil feel…”

When I visited, Bock still needed a final OK from the department of health on the space and their business practices. But he was also hoping for one more: permission to open a kitchen, complete with a professional pastry chef.

Bock envisions a kitchen here, if state officials approve.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

“…in which we will be producing on site some edibles, and edibles for those people that don’t know are cooked products that have infused within them some medical marijuana, so anything from a brownie to people able to buy some butter, or a granola bar.”

And that’s the trend in an industry that’s been growing for many years now in states like Colorado.

“A lot of people are choosing not to consume marijuana by smoking it and are instead turning to edibles or tinctures or lotions and finding relief through using those products," says Colorado-based medical marijuana attorney Brian Vicente. “And so I think it’s forward thinking of that dispensary to bring on a professional to assist in that area.”

Vicente should know. His firm Vicente Sederberg,LLC has been guiding medical marijuana clients through the complexities of running these businesses now for several years, including a growing number of clients in New England.

There’s about 10 attorneys at our firm, and we exclusively do medical marijuana and marijuana law, and we’re really the only national law firm that has this focus.”

Vicente says Greenleaf’s retail strategy—welcoming customers into a friendly, well-designed space, providing a variety of options for smoking or ingesting marijuana, even offering so-called “lifestyle” products like books and clothing—is a sign that this once-emerging industry is not just striving for, but attaining some legitimacy.

“This is a market that has been underground and has really had a stigma attached to it for years. And now that they have a chance to open a store, they want to show that they are professional in everything they do, from the signage to the interior, to how their employees, or ‘budtenders,’ handle the product and speak about it. They’re really trying to be as mainstream as they can.”

In Vicente’s Colorado, the medical marijuana market is well-established. He says Denver alone is home to about 220 retail stores – more than four times the number of Starbucks. He says the Colorado market has actually contracted a bit since medical marijuana was first legalized. But he says the market looks ripe for growth in the Ocean State.

“And often we find that patient numbers will really go up as people see this as a convenient medicine to access. So I think the patient population is going to grow in Rhode Island. We’ve seen that happen in other states as they’ve brought these stores on board.”

Thousands of patients (5,469  to date, according to the RI Dept. of Health) have been certified to buy medical marijuana in Rhode Island. And the state has authorized a total of three dispensaries. How many patients register with each dispensary remains to be seen. And patients will have choices:  if they don’t buy from a dispensary, they can grow a limited amount of their own medical marijuana or designate a caregiver to grow some on their behalf.

What they decide may depend on their health and ability to travel, but it might also depend on how they feel about walking into a store to buy something that’s still illegal on the street corner. That’s why Greenleaf compassion center owner Seth Bock is putting so much effort into how the place looks and feels.

“All along I think it’s been about a balance between people feeling that what we’re offering has enough cleanliness, a certain amount of that clinical feeling so that people know we take hygiene and cleanliness very seriously, that the product that we’re giving them is top notch, pure medicine…”

And on the flip side, says Bock, creating an environment that isn’t too sterile, a place where patients will feel comfortable right away.

Although it’s still a work in progress on this visit, Greenleaf looks as though it will be able to strike that balance. One wall has already been painted a bright, cheery avocado green, and one can picture the burbling fountain there in the center, ringed by comfy chairs. And then, of course, there might be baked goods.