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Medical cannabis dispensaries are coming to southern West Virginia, but it will likely be 2022 before they open their doors.

A large billboard in Lewisburg on Jefferson Street, just past the Walmart, can be seen announcing that a Greenlight Dispensary is “Coming Soon!”

Greenlight is also planning to open dispensaries in Beckley, at the Beckley Plaza Shopping Center, as well as in Stollings, Princeton and Bluefield.

John Mueller, president of Greenlight, said construction of all five stores should be complete by the end of January.

Construction is also underway for a Colombia Care dispensary located in the Galleria Plaza in Beckley.

Keri Stan, Colombia Care’s regional manager for cannabis stores in West Virginia, said the opening date for the Beckley location will be in early 2022.

She added that Colombia Care recently opened a dispensary in Williamstown and has also secured locations for dispensaries in St. Albans and Morgantown storefronts.

Stan said the company has a fifth dispensary license, but it has not “nailed down where specifically we are going to be putting it yet.”

The West Virginia Office of Medical Cannabis, which issues the licenses, lists Colombia Care’s fifth location as Fayetteville.

The state has also given licenses to three other companies that plan to open dispensaries in southern West Virginia, according to the Office of Medical Cannabis website.

Those companies are V3 WV Vending, Terrasana and Verano.

Doctor’s recommendation

Just as with any new industry, there is expected to be a learning process for everyone involved, from the patients seeking cannabis as a new treatment option, to the doctors recommending it, the growers and processors making the product and the dispensaries selling it.

Dr. Hassan Asghar Jafary, an internal medicine doctor in Beckley, said he is looking forward to dispensaries opening in Beckley and has begun approving the use of medical cannabis for several patients.

In order for patients to purchase medical cannabis from West Virginia dispensaries, they must obtain a medical cannabis card.

Part of obtaining the card is receiving a recommendation from a physician registered with the state’s Office of Medical Cannabis.

Jafary said it’s a physician’s job to determine if a patient possesses a serious medical condition that would qualify them to obtain medical cannabis.

Those conditions include cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), epilepsy, terminal illness, chronic or intractable pain and more.

Once a physician verifies that a patient qualifies, the patient them applies for a medical cannabis card with the Office of Medical Cannabis.

Jafary said two of the most common conditions he sees in patients who are seeking a medical cannabis card are PTSD and chronic or intractable pain, which describes pain that is difficult to treat or manage.

“I’m glad (medical marijuana) is going to be available through the public legally,” he said. “I never understand our nation’s animosity toward marijuana … The federal government approves cancer medication which is deadly toxic, and they approve a lot of chemicals to be made. But to restrict this benefit of a plant to certain society, I feel like that is a cruelty.”

As the industry establishes itself here, Jafary said he hopes the stigma associated with marijuana will slowly start to fade as more people become familiar with it.

Especially for West Virginia’s population, which is older than most others in the country, has a high level of people on disability and is heavily dependent on narcotics, Jafary said the medical cannabis industry should be seen as a great opportunity to change people’s lives.

“We do need to help people as much as we can.”

Colombia Care dispensaries

Stan said Colombia Care’s move into West Virginia was an easy decision.

“We see the need for service for patients in any of the states that we operate in,” she said. “There is an opportunity for us to go in and create dispensaries that help with patient access to really serve the needs of the communities that we operate in. Dispensaries are sometimes few and far between; any time we can go in and help out with access I think we see that as a good thing.”

Stan says Colombia Care currently has dispensaries in 15 states including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.

Stan, who previously worked in the Ohio market with Columbia Care, said the company has yet to hire a team for the Beckley store, which will be located at 300 Galleria Plaza, but she anticipates the store will have at least six full-time employees and ideally add more as the business grows.

She added that once they finalize the upper management team for the Beckley location, they will begin reaching out to the local government officials, law enforcement and organizations.

“We do like to be involved in the community … to make sure we’re impacting our community positively,” she said.

At their Williamstown location, Stan said they’re partnering with the local American Legion Post to assist with veteran fundraisers.

So far, Stan said the reception in Williamstown has been warm and met with excitement.

As a new industry, Stan said people also have lots of questions.

“It’s a new industry; it’s not something that a lot of people have experience with yet,” she said. “But I think we can help empower with some educational opportunities for the public.”

Stan said Columbia Care also has a growers and processors license through the state Office of Medical Cannabis in order to source their own products. That facility is located in Falling Water, which is in Berkeley County.

Per state guidelines, Stan said all cannabis products sold in West Virginia dispensaries must be grown and processed in the state. She said this is a rule most states enact likely to avoid transporting cannabis products through states where it’s yet to be legal.

Stan said products at the dispensary will include dry flower for vaporization; concentrates; tinctures, which go under the tongue; and topicals.

“Our goal is to offer everything that we’re legally allowed to offer so that we can have a better variety of options for patients who are coming in,” she said. “Everything is different based on each individual, and the more options that you can have for people, the better relief that they will be able to find because things work differently for everybody.”

In the Ohio market, Stan said their most popular item as well as the item recommended most by doctors is the dry flower for vaporization.

As many of the patients coming to the West Virginia dispensaries will be unfamiliar with cannabis, Stan said, as part of their standard practice, each new patient will go through a consultation with one of the dispensary techs.

Stan said the general rule of thumb they tell all their patients is “start low, start slow.”

From her experience in Ohio, Stan said she has seen firsthand some of the medical benefits of cannabis.

“One of the earliest patients that I had in Ohio was a child who had never been to school because they had 200 seizures a day,” she said. “But after getting help form a doctor and taking medical marijuana, they were able to go to school for the first time at 11 years old. We sobbed for days when we heard that.”

For more information about Columbia Care go to col-care.com

Greenlight dispensaries

Mueller said Greenlight has already seen interest for its West Virginia dispensaries.

He said people have signed up on their website to get text message alerts for updates.

He added there is a bit of a waiting process when it comes to opening, especially for Greenlight, which does not have growers or processors licenses.

Mueller said all of the cannabis products sold at Greenlight will need to be sourced from other facilities in West Virginia.

He also pointed out that the products they are selling come from a plant which takes time to grow, anywhere from 90 to 120 days, and most facilities start out growing a small number of plants and expand from there.

“Although we will be complete with our construction (in January), we also need to make sure that we have products for people to walk in so they can source their medicine,” Mueller said. “It’s a time delay between cultivation and getting a product ready to put on the shelves.”

With only a handful of dispensaries already open, Mueller said there is also an unknown for how long it takes for the state to give the go-ahead for dispensaries to open.

Mueller equated the process as similar to what liquor stores have to go through before they open.

He said the state has to come in and inspect the location to ensure it meets all the requirements, from a properly working vault, to cameras, security and more

Mueller said he is expecting each dispensary to have between 10-15 employees.

“We’re working on sourcing our general managers, which we select from the local area, and then let the general managers select the people underneath them,” he said.

With Greenlight dispensaries already open in Missouri and Arkansas and others under construction in Illinois, Mueller said integration into the local community is key.

“When you start off and get the strategic hire of your general manager and then all the people come out of the community, it’s the most important thing we can do,” he said. “People want to feel comfortable that they are shopping with somebody that cares about them.

“We also do all the local events because we want to be part of the community and at the end of the day we feel like once people get over the stigma, then all of a sudden Greenlight is no longer scary and it’s just an alternative to taking a synthetic drug.”

Overall, Mueller said Greenlight has served over 100,000 patients at its dispensaries, which are all located in states that allow cannabis for medical purposes only.

“Our whole industry’s sales pitch is if we can take one synthetic drug out of (patents’ bodies), the better off they will be,” he said. “Generally, most of the time, it’s about managing pain. There are cancer patients and nausea and all the other things that are approved.

“But if we can take one pill out of the consumption protocol, then their life slowly starts getting better.”

Mueller said he was seen people’s lives change by using medical cannabis.

Last week, Mueller said he had a patient with visible Parkinson’s symptoms come to a Greenlight dispensary.

Mueller said the patient came to the dispensary on a Tuesday and by Thursday they were already seeing results, from a decrease in tremors to an ease in performing daily functions.

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