Medical marijuana dispensaries a hot topic in Delaware

Janet — a pleasant, intelligent middle-aged professional woman — goes through the routine as if she were brushing her teeth.

She takes the marijuana out of its hiding place, grinds it up, and packs it into a pipe; a pipe that has become such a regular part of her life, she has given it a name.

“This is my pipe, her name is Rose,” she says between hits, usually no more than about three. “Most people who have a pipe that use it regularly actually do name their pipes.”

Janet did not want to be identified for this story for an obvious reason — she’s breaking the law — but she wants people to know why she’s doing it.

To deal with the pain of a serious back injury and a seizure disorder, Janet started weaning herself off prescribed narcotics three years ago, and started using marijuana.

“The pain on a scale of 1 to 10 is probably 15, it’s horrendous,” she says. “All the other medications had side effects. When I smoke marijuana my pain is gone.”

And that’s why she’s speaking out for a bill that would legalize the use of marijuana in Delaware for patients, like herself, with serious medical conditions.

Last week, the measure passed overwhelmingly in the Senate by an 18-3 vote.

If approved by the House and the Governor, possibly in the next week or so, Delaware would become just the 17th state with such a law. It would also become one of fewer than half of that to use a specific method of distributing the marijuana to those who need it.

Unlike other states, the Delaware bill would not allow patients to grow their own marijuana, or to purchase it on the street. The law would set up three dispensaries, also known as “compassion centers,” one in each county, which would grow and distribute the drug.

Janet says the dispensaries would be a blessing to anyone in her shoes that is forced to frequent the potentially dangerous illicit market to buy marijuana.

“It would make it easier for me to obtain it,” she says. “You know, I don’t have to search out where I’m going to get it and whether or not I can trust the source every time I need to purchase it.”

Of the 16 states with medical marijuana laws, only one east of the Mississippi allows for licensed dispensaries.

Maine opened its first earlier this spring, and Rhode Island, New Jersey and the District of Columbia are close to opening their first dispensaries.

Still, for years, the compassion center method of distribution has had its critics, including here in Delaware, for a number of reasons. But perhaps the biggest reason is the perceived free-for-all going on 3,000 miles away in California.

Delaware resident Joe Scarborough, who has used marijuana to address the side effects and pain associated with HIV and cancer, says California has set a bad example. The outspoken advocate for medical marijuana says Delaware’s dispensaries will be nothing like the hundreds of dispensaries doing business there.

“We’re not going to have a pot store on every corner in Delaware which has been addressed from the very beginning,” he says. “There can only be one dispensary per county. And then should the need for a second one come up, there can only be one more in the second year. So, easily in the first two years, there can be a maximum of six in the entire state.”

Also, unlike California, Scarborough says Delaware’s dispensaries would be not-for-profit, wouldn’t allow advertising, couldn’t share space with doctors, and would be under strict regulation.

They would also be a lot more discreet.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Margaret Rose Henry (D-Wilmington East), says Delaware’s compassion centers would look less like a coffee shop and more like a pharmacy.

“Safety is an issue, so we’d want to make sure that the product was safe and that people coming to get it would be in a safe environment,” she says. “Cleanliness, obviously that goes without saying, but a pharmacy kind of concept would probably be more what we’re looking at.”

Safety is also the issue for others in the state. Lewes Police Chief Jeff Horvath, who is also Vice-Chairman of the Delaware Police Chiefs Council, says the law enforcement community in Delaware has some serious concerns. He says California, for instance, has had trouble with crime in and around its dispensaries.

“They reported people being robbed,” he says. “They actually reported the dispensaries themselves being robbed. They have also reported violence in numerous areas where they’re growing the medical marijuana, people coming there to steal it, to take it.

“You know it sounds like a good idea on paper, I guess, to some people, but there’s a lot of things that need to be considered before they do this.”

Janet, for one, has considered what it might be like to go to a dispensary to acquire her marijuana instead of the quote “friend of a friend.” She believes it would be a lot safer.

“Oh my Lord, I mean it would be a tremendous relief to me,” she says. “No matter how long you’ve had to do it or no matter how many people you know who do it as well, it’s always a risk, it’s always an ordeal to get what you have to get.”

If the bill passes, the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services would award applicants interested in operating a center using a competitive process that considers plans for location, safety, security and record keeping. Henry says the first medical marijuana dispensary in Delaware could open as early as July 1st, 2012.

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