Conn.'s medical marijuana program having impact

Oct 8, 2014

Connecticut's six state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries started selling the drug late last month. They're part of a new state program that legalized the sale and use of marijuana for qualified medical use. The milestone comes after months - and in some cases, years - of difficult land use approvals and waiting. Now open, the dispensaries are already having an impact. 

A sign for Thames Valley Alternative Relief is nestled in along with other storefront businesses in a strip mall in Uncasville, Conn.
Credit Kaomi Goetz

Ruth Smith is a mother of two from Niantic, Conn. She's also a longtime sufferer of numerous ailments. 

"My diagnosed condition is PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. I have anxiety and big-time digestive malabsorption issues. I haven't seen 100 pounds in years," Smith said, clutching a bag containing five grams of medical marijuana. 

She suffers from chronic headaches and endocrine issues, too. That's why Smith hasn't been able to work and has rarely left the house. While marijuana won't cure her, she said it greatly relieves her symptoms.

"Just getting the [registration] card, I got it back in March," she said. "That in itself was an enormous stress reliever. I'm 53 years old; I don't want to be out buying pot illegally."

On this day, Smith sits in the lobby of Thames Valley Alternative Relief in Uncasville, Conn. It's one of the state's six new medical marijuana dispensaries. It's the only one east of the Connecticut River. 

Laurie Zrenda opened the business with her niece by cashing out their retirement funds. They're both pharmacists. She said the state's medical marijuana program was an opportunity to start her own business. 

"The more I learned about it, the more excited I am,"Zrenda said. "It really is a medicine that's making a big difference in people's lives. 

The entrance to Thames Valley Alternative Relief.
Credit Kaomi Goetz

She said patients tell her that marijuana alleviates some of the pain, allowing them to lower dosages of drugs like oxycodone or morphine. To date, the state has approved medical marijuana for 11 ailments, including post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, cancer and Parkinson's disease. 

There are some restrictions. Patients must be over the age of 18 and live in the state. They also must register through a physician. So far, Zrenda has about 200 customers since she started selling on Sept. 22, 2014. Statewide, officials say 2,400 have registered. William Rubenstein is commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection, which oversees the program, and said he's pleased with how things have progressed.

"We created this program from scratch. We think we have the best regulatory structure in the country. We really think the program is operating the way we thought it [would] when we designed it."

Currently 22 states and the District of Columbia have sanctioned some form of medical marijuana. Patients in Connecticut say there could be improvement. For example, they'd like the state to expand on the list of conditions that qualify. They say ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease isn't on the list even though it has similar symptoms to Parkinson's. 

Another complaint is form. At Thames Valley, customers can buy the drug as loose flower, pre-rolled smokables or pressed tablets. The state requires the loose product to be finely ground. That's drawing criticism from customers who want the same bud form available on the street. They say the cannabinoids, or chemical compounds, lose their potency when ground that finely. But the state and dispensaries say that's the only way to guarantee consistent dosages. 

Pharmacist Laurie Zrenda, of East Lyme, Conn., displays a vaporizer that sells at her dispensary for $250.
Credit Kaomi Goetz

And some customers aren't satisfied with what's available. The DCP's Rubenstein said more options are coming. 

"Our patients would like to see other forms of the product: tinctures, oils, extracts and edibles. We expect those products to come on line in the next two to three months," he said.

Price is also a concern. The medical marijuana sold at dispensaries is often more expensive than on the street. It's also only sold in pre-set quantities. At Thames Valley, five grams can cost up to $100, including tax. Pharmacist Zrenda pays about half that cost, or $11 a gram from grower Theraplant, the only state-licensed supplier who is shipping product. Zrenda said her retail price factors in her $100,000 start up cost. And she believes the price will fall after the three other growers in the state begin to ship product, anywhere from within a few weeks to a few months. In the meantime, it's an expense that Ruth Smith is putting up with.

"I've no business spending money on it, frankly," Smith said. She and her husband filed for bankruptcy a few years ago. "But for me and my family, it truly is a quality of life issue. I can't function [without it],"she said.

Marijuana use is still illegal under federal law. Officials said state law protects residents in the program from prosecution. But it is still an evolving issue. And for people like Ruth Smith, it's giving her hope.