AUBURN, Maine — In the cavernous confines of a long-vacant store in a standard-issue shopping plaza, an earnest couple are cultivating plans for what could be the first dispensary for medical marijuana east of the Mississippi River.
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Called the Remedy Compassion Center and expected to open this spring, the dispensary is one of eight that state health officials will allow in Maine after Jan. 1. In its 10,000 square feet, set next to a craft store, the center will grow, harvest, and sell marijuana.
“It’s a wonderful medicine I hope to share,’’ co-owner Jenna Smale said in the space where she and her husband, Tim, see the beginnings of a thriving business.
“I’m doing what I’m here on earth to do.’’
God, the Smales said, wants them to sell marijuana to the sick.
“We know we’re doing what we’re called to do, which is help patients who are suffering with a natural herb that was put on the earth,’’ said Jenna Smale, 43.
Her husband, a former corporate executive, concurred.
“I’m responding to a personal call in my life,’’ said Tim Smale, 51, dressed in a tweed jacket and casual business attire. “We have the guts to take our personal funds and follow the Lord.’’
Their personal investment so far is more than $100,000 and included savings, retirement money, and life insurance, Tim Smale said. But this commitment has been born of nearly three decades of battling migraine headaches that traditional remedies could not ease , he said.
“I didn’t have a life, OK?’’ he said. “I’m hugging the commode, I’m puking, I’m crying my eyes out.’’
Beta-blockers, antidepressants, and different narcotic medicines all failed, Smale said. He turned to marijuana in 2004. Now, through multiple daily doses of marijuana for which he has medical approval, Smale said, he can lower the intensity of his headaches from debilitating to moderate.
“It’s given me my life back,’’ said Smale, who worked as general manager at an Oakland, Calif., company that advised clients how to start marijuana dispensaries.
The use of marijuana for chronic medical conditions is increasing across the country. Maine, whose voters approved dispensaries in a 2009 binding referendum, is one of 15 states plus the District of Columbia that allow medical marijuana, and one of seven states where more than 1,000 dispensaries have opened or are being implemented. The remaining states where medical marijuana is legal are allowing patients or caregivers to grow their own.
Rhode Island, where caregivers can grow marijuana for registered patients, is the only other New England state to approve dispensaries. Health officials there are expected to choose among applicants for three centers by early spring, but the dispensaries would not open until later.
In Maine, each of the state’s eight public health districts will have one dispensary selected through competitive applications. If the Smales’ dispensary, which topped eight other applicants, is not the first to open, the center is expected to trail only a facility in far-north Aroostook County. No dispensaries are up and running east of Colorado, according to medical marijuana advocates.
Maine would appear to be a good fit for pharmacy-style distribution of marijuana. Its libertarian streak and homegrown cultivation of the plant, a rural practice often winked at here, make the transition to dispensaries almost unsurprising in a state where 60 percent of voters approved the move.
In a break from the state’s previous system, where only a doctor’s letter was sufficient to grow and use marijuana, Maine patients who wish to partake of medical marijuana must register with the state by Jan. 1 to do business with the nonprofit dispensaries and use the drug legally.
About 200 residents have been approved, and 200 more have applications pending, said John Thiele, the state’s medical marijuana program manager. Applicants must produce a doctor’s letter and pay a fee of $75 or $100, Thiele said.
Illnesses for which marijuana can be used in Maine include HIV, hepatitis C, cancer, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
How the dispensaries obtain their initial seeds or plant grafts, Thiele said, is “almost a don’t ask, don’t tell thing.’’
Marijuana purchases, at an unregulated price that Jenna Smale said will be as low as possible, will be available to any Maine resident who has registered, complete with home delivery if needed. Insurance will not cover the transactions.
Despite his position as the Maine program’s top administrator, Thiele said he has some misgivings about the drug.
“I think it creates more problems than maybe it solves for society,’’ said Thiele. “But if my mother had ALS or Alzheimer’s, I would want my loved ones to be able to use the program’’ if marijuana proved to be beneficial.
Sharing those benefits has become the life work of the Smales, who added that the literal process of seeding his business has not been determined.
“How I start the product, I don’t know yet,’’ Tim Smale said.
In Auburn, a city of 23,000 where half of the state’s population lives within 40 miles, Mayor Richard Gleason welcomes the dispensary.
“Anything that brings commerce to Auburn and is legal is fine with me,’’ Gleason said.
(1980-2009 – Total, marijuana and drug arrests by year) Although the intent of a ‘War on Drugs’ may have been to target drug smugglers and ‘King Pins,’ over half (51.6%) of the 1,663,582 total 2009 arrests for drug abuse violations were for marijuana — a calculated total of 858,408. Of those, an estimated 758,593 people (45.6%) were arrested for marijuana possession alone. By contrast in 2000, a total of 734,497 Americans were arrested for marijuana offenses, of which 646,042 were for possession alone.
An extremely interesting, thought provoking article on children, autism, and cannabis. A mother gives her son marijuana medibles to help with his autism.
Why I Give My 9-year-old Pot
By: Marie Myung-Ok Lee
Posted: May 11, 2009 at 11:34 PM
Question: why are we giving our nine-year-old a marijuana cookie?
Answer: because he can’t figure out how to use a bong.
My son J has autism. He’s also had two serious surgeries for a spinal cord tumor and has an inflammatory bowel condition, all of which may be causing him pain, if he could tell us. He can say words, but many of them—”duck in the water, duck in the water”—don’t convey what he means. For a time, anti-inflammatory medication seemed to control his pain. But in the last year, it stopped working. He began to bite and to smack the glasses off my face. If you were in that much pain, you’d probably want to hit someone, too.
J’s school called my husband and me in for a meeting about J’s tantrums, which were affecting his ability to learn. The teachers were wearing tae kwon do arm pads to protect themselves against his biting. Their solution was to hand us a list of child psychiatrists. Since autistic children like J can’t exactly do talk therapy, this meant sedating, antipsychotic drugs like Risperdal—Thorazine for kids.
Last year, Risperdal was prescribed for more than 389,000 children—240,000 of them under the age of 12—for bipolar disorder, ADHD, autism, and other disorders. Yet the drug has never been tested for long-term safety  in children and carries a severe warning of side effects. From 2000 to 2004, 45 pediatric deaths were attributed to Risperdal and five other popular drugs also classified as “atypical antipsychotics,” according to a review  of FDA data by USA Today. When I canvassed parents of autistic children who take Risperdal, I didn’t hear a single story of an improvement that seemed worth the risks. A 2002 study specifically looking at the use of Risperdal for autism, in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed moderate improvements in “autistic irritation”—but if you read more closely, the study followed only 49 children over eight weeks, which, researchers admitted, “limits inferences about adverse effects.”
We met with J’s doctor, who’d read the studies and agreed: No Risperdal or its kin.
The school called us in again. What were we going to do, they asked. As a sometimes health writer and blogger , I was intrigued when a homeopath suggested medical marijuana. Cannabis has long-documented effects as an analgesic and an anxiety modulator. Best of all, it is safe. The homeopath referred me to a publication  by the Autism Research Institute describing cases of reduced aggression, with no permanent side effects. Rats given 40 times the psychoactive level merely fall sleep. Dr. Lester Grinspoon, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who has been researching cannabis for 40 years, says he has yet to encounter a case of marijuana causing a death, even from lung cancer.
A prescription drug called Marinol, which contains a synthetic cannabinoid, seemed mainstream enough to bring up with J’s doctor. I cannot say that with a few little pills, everything turned around. But after about a week of playing around with the dosage, J began garnering a few glowing school reports: “J was a pleasure have in speech class,” instead of “J had 300 aggressions today.”
But J tends to build tolerance to synthetics, and in a few months, we could see the aggressive behavior coming back. One night, I went to the meeting of a medical marijuana patient advocacy group on the campus of the college where I teach. The patients told me that Marinol couldn’t compare to marijuana, the plant, which has at least 60 cannabinoids to Marinol’s one.
Rhode Island, where we live, is one of 13 states where the use of medical marijuana is legal. But I was resistant. My late father was an anesthesiologist, and compared with the precise drugs he worked with, I know he would think marijuana to be ridiculously imprecise and unscientific. I looked at my son’s tie-dye socks (his avowed favorite). At his school, I was already the weirdo mom who packed lunches with organic kale and kimchi and wouldn’t let him eat any “fun” foods with artificial dyes. Now, I’d be the mom who shunned the standard operating procedure and gave her kid pot instead.