As Virginia readies to consider the legalization of recreational marijuana, Richmond’s first medical marijuana dispensary is celebrating its opening.
Green Leaf Medical of Virginia opened to the public last week and has already seen over 2,000 customers come through its South Richmond doors.
From the outside, Green Leaf looks like an office building tucked behind a series of nondescript gray warehouses at 2804 Decatur St. in the Swansboro neighborhood near Manchester.
But inside, the dispensary resembles an upscale urban coffee shop with lots of wood accents, starburst chandeliers and a mural of Richmond’s skyline — plus the strong, pungent smell of cannabis.
In 2018, Virginia granted five permits to operators to produce cannabidiol (CBD) oil or THC-A oil throughout the state. Green Leaf, which is also known as gLeaf, is one of those and the only operator in central Virginia. The medical use of authorized cannabis products for registered patients with any medical condition and with written authorization became legal in the state on July 1. The dispensary is attached to Green Leaf’s 82,000-square-foot production facility.
In the South Richmond dispensary, there are 13 registers where customers can purchase Green Leaf medical marijuana products, such as vapes, tinctures and concentrates. A digital screen over each register shows the current menu of products with names like Blue Steel, Topanga Canyon and Koffee — strains, or the type, of cannabis, which can then be ingested via vape cartridge or tincture.
On Wednesday morning, only half of the registers were staffed due to COVID-19 restrictions. A steady stream of customers came through the doors, one at a time after passing through reception and security, representing a broad cross-section of people from soccer moms and office workers in Patagonia jackets to an older veteran walking with a cane.
But not just anybody can walk in off the street and purchase Green Leaf’s cannabinoid oil-based products. You have to be 18 or over and a registered patient with a medical cannabis card to get inside.
To get a card is a three-step process.
First, potential customers need to get a written certification to legally possess cannabis oil from a registered practitioner. A list of registered practitioners can be found on the website of Virginia NORML (vanorml.org), a nonprofit organization for the reform of marijuana laws. According to the list, there are roughly 45 registered practitioners in the Richmond area specializing in everything from pain management to psychiatry.
In Virginia, any diagnosed condition can qualify for medical cannabis treatment, as long as a registered practitioner issues a written certification, according to The Associated Press.
Dr. Louis Duchin is a registered psychiatrist on the list who prescribes medical marijuana for patients.
“In my experience, it’s really good for anxiety and insomnia, but not so much for depression. It’s also well recognized in chronic pain, nausea and vomiting,” Duchin said.
Medical marijuana can also treat more serious issues such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and epilepsy, according to Trey Blankinship, Green Leaf’s pharmacy director.
“I find it to be a very effective treatment option for some patients, but not for everybody. One size never fits all,” Duchin said. He said that he will see new patients who are interested in taking medical marijuana.
“We’ll do an assessment to see, is CBD the best treatment for them? Would another medication be better? For instance, if someone came in and had a psychotic disorder then obviously CBD wouldn’t be my first choice. They would need an antipsychotic,” Duchin said.
His standard fee for a 90-minute assessment is $225 or he takes insurance from Cigna and Medicare.
Meeting with a registered practitioner typically costs $100 to $300 or may be covered by one’s insurance. Practitioners will also specify a time frame for the recommendation, such as 90 days or longer.
The next step in becoming a registered customer is to apply for a medical cannabis card with the Virginia Board of Pharmacy at www.license.dhp.virginia.gov/apply. That fee is $50 for patients and $25 for a parent/legal guardian or registered agent. It typically takes a few days or longer to receive one’s card in the mail.
When a customer receives their medical card, they can visit Green Leaf’s dispensary on Decatur Street. They will need to bring their ID, letter of certification and medical cannabis card. Also, the dispensary is cash only, per state regulations. An ATM is available on site.
First-time registered customers must visit the dispensary in person to meet with a pharmacy technician and come up with a treatment plan.
For example, one customer, an older woman, told the technician she was looking for something to lessen her anxiety and help her sleep. The pharmacy technician steered her toward the products he thought would help.
Those visits typically only take a few minutes, like meeting with the pharmacist at CVS for a recommendation.
Currently, Green Leaf offers 15 products, but it has 30 more products in the pipeline and many in the final stages of lab testing. Green Leaf expects its expanded line of edibles — such as chewable gummies and chocolates — to be available this month. Most of its products range in price from $25 to $90.
Green Leaf’s products are made from a blend of cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), two natural compounds found in cannabis plants. CBD has been shown to help with anxiety or seizures, but it won’t produce the high or euphoria associated with THC.
Only pharmacists at Green Leaf are allowed to counsel patients on the use, storage and disposal of cannabis products. Technicians at Green Leaf are able to discuss the difference between products and explain the potential benefits within those cannabis products.
“Much of it is trial and error. Do you want something more relaxing or more stimulating? Everything works differently for everybody,” said Blankinship, the pharmacy director.
Per Virginia regulations, doses from these products are not allowed to exceed 10 milligrams of THC, the psychoactive component in cannabis. Green Leaf is also not allowed to sell marijuana flowers, only oil-based products at this time.
After that first visit, registered customers can order products online and get home delivery. Green Leaf has a fleet of 10 cars and will deliver almost all over the state.
Philip Goldberg, co-founder and CEO of Green Leaf, said that many of the initial 2,000 customers drove to the Richmond dispensary from hours away to set up an account. The delivery fee is $10 for orders under $100 and free for orders $200 and over.
Since there are only three dispensaries currently in Virginia, Green Leaf aims to serve customers from the Richmond area and beyond. The other medical marijuana dispensaries are Dharma Pharmaceuticals in Bristol and BEYOND / HELLO from Dalitso LLC in Manassas. A fourth, Columbia Care, is expected to open in Hampton Roads soon.
Patients can register online before visiting Green Leaf for the first time or simply arrive at the dispensary with their documents in hand to be checked at reception.
Green Leaf also has facilities in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The company is in the process of adding five dispensaries to its license and hopes to open locations in Short Pump, Midlothian and possibly Scott’s Addition.
In Virginia, 7,000 people have currently registered for a medical marijuana card.
Goldberg said that on average in states with active medical cannabis programs, 2-3% of the state’s population will register to become medical patients. “With 8.5 million residents [in Virginia], we expect to serve a patient population of 170,000-255,000,” he said.
Goldberg said that Green Leaf chose Richmond for a variety of reasons: because of its strong workforce, access to industrial space and central location.
“We have an aggressive home delivery model and it allows us to execute on that home delivery plan,” Goldberg said.