Delaware isn’t letting just anyone use marijuana — yet. But it’s available to people with certain medical conditions who have gotten no relief from traditional medicine.
First State Compassion Center (FSCC) opened Sussex County’s first medical cannabis facility on May 26.
In order to use cannabis, people don’t get a doctor’s prescription, like they would for traditional medication. Instead, Delaware patients apply for a state registration card from the Delaware Division of Public Health.
In order for them to qualify, a physician must recommend that the patient use marijuana to treat symptoms of cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, the physical manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder or any conditions that cause severe, debilitating pain, wasting syndrome, intractable nausea and seizures.
The Delaware Medical Marijuana Patient Registry Card gets patients through the door of a compassion center.
Once inside FSCC, people meet privately with a patient advisor. Similar to a regular doctor’s appointment, staff interview the patient about their condition, then recommend a treatment.
The 4,000-square-foot facility includes private areas for patient discussion. The people behind the FSCC aimed to create a warm, well-lit facility with seven stations on a long countertop. Products are viewed in glass display cases at the “Bud Bar.”
That’s a big deal, because dispensaries in other states can “run the gamut,” according to an FSCC advisor, Pamela Johnston of Electrum Partners. “Some are like headshops or ‘sketch’-feeling spaces, and some are very high-end, like spas. We take special care in creating a professional environment that respects patients.”
Most people entering a dispensary for the first time are going in blind, or they have a friend who recommended cannabis treatments, so FSCC provides a “hand-held experience,” Johnston said.
Cannabis may come in different products. FSCC grows 17 of its own cannabis strains in Wilmington, selling loose-leaf “flower” (Sativa dominant, Indica dominant, high-THC, high-CBD and other hybrids). People may also choose capsules, concentrates, oils, tinctures, pre-rolls, topicals, sublinguals and mints. FSCC features products from cannabis companies Kalm Fusion and Tikun Olam. People can also purchase glassware, accessories, vape pens and other gear.
“There are so many different products and uses,” Johnston said. “Our people are very experienced, so we know the combinations that are popular.”
For example, a patient with epilepsy might want something with very fast absorption, such as a tincture.
There is some trial and error. Between many types of cannabis and products, people may need to experiment before finding the right treatment.
“They stumble upon whatever works the best for them, and it’s like lifesaving, life-changing!” Johnston enthused.
There is no cost for consultation, just for the product.
Registered patients or designated caregivers may possess up to 6 ounces of medical marijuana. A compassion center can dispense up to 3 ounces of marijuana to a qualifying patient in any 14-day period.
“Our foremost goal is the care we take of our patients, and that includes having the best medicine and the most caring staff,” stated Mark Lally, FSCC president and retired Delaware State Police trooper. “We built our new space focusing on the patient experience, aiming to create a modern, comfortable feel and an environment that enhances patients’ comfort while they safely explore products for their care.”
Delaware’s first legal seller
FSCC is licensed by the Delaware Department of Health & Social Services to provide medical-grade cannabis. “Compassion center” is Delaware’s term for these marijuana dispensaries.
“Our mission is built on providing licensed patients with safe access to high-quality and affordable medicine,” states the FSCC website. “We recognize that our patients are dealing with an array of complex — and in some cases very serious — medical conditions. We are committed to providing the most compassionate and comprehensive care and support to all.”
Working from New York, Johnston is a consultant for the consultants helping FSCC. Electrum Partners is an advisory firm in the global cannabis industry, helping put the pieces together by working with lawmakers, drafting regulations, advising the public and, in this case, helping FSCC President Mark Lally expand a legal marijuana dispensary.
Delaware law requires compassion centers to be operated similar to a non-profit (although they need not be recognized as tax-exempt by the Internal Revenue Service). Excess revenues must be spent in such a way as to maintain a not-for-profit character.
“The core of FSCC’s not-for-profit mission is to provide licensed patients with access to the highest quality of medicine that is affordable and safe. FSCC furthers this mission with the provision of free and reduced-priced medicine for patients that meet certain income guidelines or medical conditions. No one goes without medicine because of an inability to pay,” Johnston stated.
“[Excess] funds are either reinvested back into the operation or given out as charitable contributions to non-profit organizations that focus on health care and the wellbeing of Delaware residents.”
This year, that reinvestment meant expanding FSCC services in southern Delaware.
And the neighbors should be comfortable with the 24-hour security at the dispensary, said Johnston, adding that she does not anticipate increased crime in the area. Even though the building contains a drug that is also found on the black market, “We have never had an incident in Wilmington, and we’re quite confident that it’s not something that any of our facilities in Delaware would have to deal with.”
Although Johnston was tight-lipped about specific security details, Delaware requires compassion centers to have careful security for the products and building.
“We are owned and run by a former state trooper,” Johnston said of Lally. “”I would say knowing our team and who’s behind it,” the building is secure, she said. “We’re dealing with medical patients. We’re not dealing with Cheech and Chong … but I would pretty much guess that any attempt would fail,” she said.
But this is still a new program. In Delaware, some people aren’t comfortable with the idea of allowing an otherwise illegal drug to be dispensed as such.
“I would ask them to consider compassion for patients whose lives are changed,” Johnston countered. ”I would point out that a regulated market for cannabis would remove the unsafe black market and restrict access to youth.”
Plus, marijuana could help wean people off opioids, she said.
Delaware open to looser marijuana laws
Delaware approved the development of compassion centers in 2011 (one per county), and the registry program began in 2012.
FSCC opened Delaware’s first center in Wilmington in 2015. They were authorized to open another in Sussex County. In early 2018, Columbia Care has permission to open Kent County Compassion Center in an as-yet undisclosed location.
But Delaware may also be approaching legalization of recreational use of marijuana. Eight other states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana use for adults.
The Delaware General Assembly recently created the Adult Use Cannabis Task Force (House Concurrent Resolution 52) to study the possibility of future legalization, including criminal concerns, taxation, revenue, consumer safety, substance-abuse prevention, packaging requirements and more. They’ll begin meeting in September and complete a report this winter.
When the Delaware General Assembly returns to session this winter, they may consider the Delaware Marijuana Control Act (HB 110), which would regulate and tax marijuana in the same manner as alcohol.
The bill would allow adults 21 or older to legally carry and consume up to 1 ounce of marijuana. Marijuana businesses would be limited by hours and holidays, just as alcohol. Marijuana use would still be prohibited in public and in vehicles.
A new Delaware Marijuana Control Act Oversight Committee would hash out the details. In part, marijuana taxes would support state education, nonprofit organizations, and health and social services.
In Delaware, marijuana is a Schedule 1 controlled substance. Marijuana was decriminalized in 2015. Currently, adults possessing or using up to 1 ounce of leaf will face misdemeanors (for those 18 to 21) and civil fines (for those 21 or older), rather than lengthy prison sentences.
Although the FDA has not approved marijuana treatment, the agency does not object to cannabis research. Moreover, the agency has approved several drugs containing synthetic versions of a substance that mirror marijuana’s properties.
For more details on Delaware state rules and patient registration cards, call the Delaware Office of Marijuana at (302) 744-4749 or visit http://dhss.delaware.gov/dph/hsp/medmarhome.html.
First State Compassion Center’s is located in the Vineyards development, at 12000 Old Vine Boulevard, Unit 102, Lewes.
Patients do not need an appointment. FSCC is open Monday to Saturday. The website is at www.firststatecompassion.com. People may contact FSCC South at (302) 281-4888 and FSCC North at (302) 543-2100 for more information.