Out of the 33 states with medical marijuana, the cannabis advocacy group Americans For Safe Access ranked Maine’s program as ninth best in the nation in 2018. And one dispensary group runs half of Maine’s dispensaries: the Wellness Connection of Maine.
With four locations in Portland, Brewer, Gardiner and Thomaston, the Wellness Connection of Maine has helped propel the state to the pinnacle of medical marijuana by prioritizing professionalism and education above all else.
“Whatever we do, from selecting decorations for the interior to thinking about our educational outreach, the goal is to support and assist patients as they get to know this medicine,” says Becky DeKeuster, the co-founder and director of community and education at the Wellness Connection.
DeKeuster says that the Wellness Connection follows a philosophy she learned while working for the Berkeley Patients Group in California. “We think of our dispensaries as community centers,” she says, “as gathering spaces that are educationally based.”
So, since its founding in 2011, the Wellness Connection has participated in city commerce meetings. They have educated physicians on the endocannabinoid system and patients on their rights when talking to physicians about cannabis. They have opened dispensaries in buildings that have sat vacant for decades to revitalize local economies. They’re looking to create a cannabis hospice program for their state’s many senior citizens. And they have donated $60,000 to charities — mostly healthcare related — across the state.
“We’re grateful that we can make these donations, but it’s about so much more than dollars and cents,” said Patricia Rosi, CEO of the Wellness Connection of Maine. “It’s about being part of and connecting with the community in positive ways.”
Upon entering one of the Wellness Connection’s four dispensaries, a patient feels the embodiment of this community-oriented philosophy, coalescing with the unique influence the state of Maine and its medical marijuana laws wield.
Maine legalized medical marijuana in 1999, but only passed a measure to allow dispensaries in 2009, and has yet to systematically capitalize on the recreational legalization measures of 2016. However, while Maine does have a long history of medical marijuana, the state’s program still doesn’t enjoy the sort of mainstream exposure and acceptance that Western states like California do.
“In New England, when we got started in 2009, there was certainly skepticism from the public, and so each dispensary is sensitive to the need to present a very professional front, but not in a cold or clinical way,” says DeKeuster. “When folks come to us, they get to sit down with one of our member liaisons for an intake interview that takes as long as the patient needs to be comfortable about the laws and the medicine.”
However, Maine has a long tradition of people cultivating for themselves, DeKeuster says, partially because it has a small, largely rural population spread over a large geographical area. Thanks to the history of self-cultivation, DeKeuster says the state has been on the cutting edge of innovation in terms of the varieties of cannabis they grow, which the Wellness Connection takes advantage of to cross-breed strains that best fit their patients’ needs. The group of dispensaries has a large growing facility in Auburn that they will be tripling the size of to 60,000 square feet in 2016 to keep up with demand. They also do not use pesticides, and have self-imposed lab testing of all their products for mold, mildew and potency levels.
Maine’s population has responded positively to the Wellness Connection. Their dispensaries are so open, bright and clean — with cushy black armchairs, tan hardwood floors and pea-green walls — that DeKeuster says most people walk in and say, “Wow, this was not what I expected.”
When their doors first opened, the dispensary group had about 200 patients and five employees. Four years later, they have over 11,000 patients and 65 employees. And there is no average customer of the Wellness Connection of Maine, DeKeuster says. Instead, people across the socioeconomic spectrum, across job industries and across all ages visit their dispensaries. “There is not any one descriptor that I would use for our patient base other than ‘representative of Maine,’” says DeKeuster.
“I think again people might forget about us here in the upper right-hand corner of the country, and in many ways that’s okay,” says DeKeuster. “Maine is a small state, we can’t forget that we are a model… We need to keep patients front and center, and we need to keep striving forward.”
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Originally published in Issue 19 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE