What can Rhode Island compassion centers learn from Maine?

Providence, RI – Next week, the Rhode Island Department of Health chooses who will run the state's first medical marijuana retail stores. Maine did the same thing last July when the state issued licenses to run medical marijuana dispensaries in its communities. So, WRNI's health care reporter Megan Hall took a trip up north to see what Rhode Island can expect from its compassion centers within the next year. The short answer is not much.

Glenn Peterson expected to open the Canuvo medical marijuana dispensary in January. So far, it's just an empty doctor's office in Biddeford Maine.

"We are in an 8 room medical condominium, this is the former nurse station is in the center of the unit," he says."We're happy with this location off main drag, discreetly in the back."

In the two weeks since he's moved in, Peterson has painted the space and decorated it with spare items from his house- a pair of wooden skis lean in the corner of the waiting room. Pastoral paintings of Maine hang on the wall.

" My son who's 17 says it looks like the LL Bean of pot," he says. But so far there's no pot or medical marijuana to be seen.

"We're sort of in that Catch 22 of you need patients to grow plants, you need plants to attract patients, and you need plants for product,"he says. "And there is a ramp up time, so we are on the ramp up side of things."

This is how both Rhode Island and Maine dispensaries work- the stores can't just grow a huge supply of marijuana- they're limited by the number of patients who choose the centers as the source for their medicine. In Maine, that's 6 mature plants per patient.In Rhode Island it's 12.

But that's not the main reason why Peterson's dispensary hasn't opened yet- it's all the red tape.

After months of filling out applications and appearing before planning boards, Peterson still hasn't opened his grow site. He's waiting on permission from a nearby town.

Peterson isn't the only one that's struggling. So far, none of the eight medical marijuana dispensaries in Maine have opened yet.

Tim Smale and his wife Jenna received a license to open the Remedy Compassion Center last July. "We had a facility established, we had financing lined up, but both the financing fell through and the building fell through," he says. " So we were back to square one."

Once the Smales started over, they were lucky enough to find a town that no longer had a moratorium on medical marijuana and welcomed their dispensary, but it's still been a slow process.

"It took an unbelievable amount of time," he says. " We looked at 34 facilities before we settled on this one. So, it's a difficult process."

At Maine's Medical Marijuana Expo in Portland, a handful of patients crowd into hotel room 2220 passing around joints and talking about cannabis in Maine.

Jake Mcclure is a patient and a board member of the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine- a trade group for people that grow marijuana for patients. He says the state doesn't need the dispensaries at all.

"There's less than 700 medical marijuana patients in the state right now and they're all using care givers or cultivating for themselves," he says. "I don't see a big incentive program for them to move over to a dispensary. I don't see dispensaries getting off the ground."

The number of patients in Maine is actually seven hundred and counting- that's less than a fourth of the Rhode Island's more than three thousand medical marijuana card holders.

Mcclure says he's not against dispensaries in general, but the state is too spread out for Maine's eight distribution centers. Perhaps they'd be more successful in a place like Rhode Island.

"In a big city where the population density is high, I think that's a place where you'd see a dispensary system thrive," he says. " But here in Maine we're very rural and few and far between."

Mcclure admits that he's also worried the dispensaries might have an advantage over caregivers like him. But Tim Smale with Remedy Compassion Center says that's a non issue.

"The market pie is plenty big for caregivers and dispensaries in a Maine," he says. "I think it's probably a made up issue because there's not a lot to talk about negative in Maine, so it's kind of exciting, you get to make up a war between things that don't exist."

State Representative Diane Russell says it's hard to say what will happen with the dispensaries. In some ways, Maine is in the same place Rhode Island is.

"It really hasn't played out yet," she says. "I think when it plays out it's when the first door opens. That's what we're waiting to see what happens when the door opens, when the ribbon gets cuts and people start being able to go in. We're waiting just like everybody else."

Russell unsuccessfully applied to run one of the medical marijuana stores, and is watching the program fairly carefully, but she thinks it's only chipping away at a larger issue. This year she'll introduce legislation to legalize marijuana for everyone, whether they have an illness or not.

"I think that we're ready to move beyond medical marijuana and recognize that law abiding adults 21 years old and older should be able to make informed decisions about what they do in the privacy of their own home," she says.

For medical marijuana dispensary owners like Tim Smale and Glenn Peterson, that legislation could significantly change their business plans. But for now, they're going to focus on the laws as they are and try to start selling medical marijuana within the next few months- nearly a year after this process started.

Will it take a year for Rhode Island's compassion centers to open? The clock starts ticking next Tuesday when the Health Department issues its licenses.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you.news@wrni.org.