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State College’s first medical marijuana dispensary aims to ease pain

by on September 27, 2018 10:27 AM

When patients come into Nature's Medicines, Angel Rodriguez feels their pain. He knows what they are going through and what they are looking for.

After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Rodriguez, the co-manager of Centre County’s first medical marijuana dispensary, was struggling with his own personal darkness. It is still something that he deals with every day, but he does deal with it, thanks to medical marijuana.

It is still hard for him to even talk about the tough times. He says he will never forget hiding underneath his bed, afraid to come out and deal with the pain that he was feeling. This was years ago, after he had traveled and served his country in the Army and Coast Guard, and started a family with his wife, Nia. He was someone who had loved living life and meeting new people, but found himself unable to get out from under his bed, not even for his family.

Tears build up when he speaks about it and the pain is visible in his eyes. It is almost as if he is transported back to those dark days after he got out of the military, before he found a medicine that actually helped. It is scary to see the pain that he was dealing with.

PTSD, depression, and chronic migraines, along with lingering effects of meningitis from his time in the Coast Guard, caused him to be stuck in his own personal prison, and he did not know how he was going to get out.

That is, until he finally found something that worked: marijuana.

“It was my brother-in-law. He was tired of seeing me under the bed,” Rodriguez says. “He was tired of seeing me going through my things, and so he rolled up a joint and was like, ‘Here, you got to smoke with me.’

“Since that day, I have been dedicated. My eyes were open. I left that day, I came out from under the bed, literally. ... Once I looked at it as a medicine and looked at it as a way to not be gone from the world, that was my wake-up call. It took one hit. This is not just a business, this is not just a lifestyle. This is something that saved me ... and my family.”

Laws and accountability 

California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana, in 1996. Now, the use of cannabis for medical purposes is legal in 31 states, plus the territories of Guam and Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. Nine states now have legal recreational marijuana use.

In April 2016, Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law SB3, known as Pennsylvania’s compassionate medical cannabis legislation. The law went  into  effect  in  May  2016,  and the first dispensaries began serving patients in April 2018. Nature’s Medicine opened its North Atherton  Street location in June and had its grand opening in September.

Walking into Nature’s Medicine, the atmosphere feels like a split between a high-security bank and a yoga studio. A statue of Buddha greets patients in the lobby, which features green plants and calming music. But before a visitor goes through a locked door into the waiting room, a receptionist has to give approval from behind a sliding glass window. An ID is required and every person must sign in; visitation without a state- issued medical marijuana card requires a badge.  Throughout the building cameras are watching every move, as the state Department of Health monitors who goes in and out of each room.

The waiting room is comfortable, like a new-age doctor’s office. More houseplants and leather sofas fill the room, along with the faintest flowery aroma that would be familiar to anyone who has attended college parties or rock concerts. A mix of people sit – old and young, men and women, all there waiting to get back behind a locked door so they can get nature’s medicine.  Around them is literature about different products that share the benefits of using this or that particular strain of cannabis.

Oils, pills, waxes, creams, dry leafs for vaporization, cartridges, stray tinctures, transdermal patches – the state has allowed numerous avenues for this medication to be taken. Just don’t smoke it. That is still illegal.

And, don’t take it across state lines or on airplanes, because medical marijuana is still considered a Schedule 1 narcotic by the federal government, and the Pennsylvania medical card means something only in Pennsylvania.

The names of the latest products are on display on a television screen in the waiting room, and the names of the products all sound like they came from the brain of a college kid who is really into snowboarding and EDM. Rodriguez says that a large percentage of his clients are older adults. It is funny to think of the grandmotherly woman in the waiting room as king for Creso Katsu Bubba Kush and a vape machine, but whatever helps.

Different medicines promise certain effects. Some offer a more positive morning mood, others a calming promise, while others are designed more to decrease pain.

Behind a locked door patients meet one-to-one with a customer-care provider who helps get them the right product and amount they are looking for. Access to the area is limited and the cameras are always watching. All the products are counted,weighed, and kept locked and secure. Everything is measured and accounted for, just like at any pharmacy.

Gray areas for police 

For the Patton Township Police Department, the dispensary offers no more risk than any other business, says Officer Brian Schaffer, a drug recognition expert. Schaffer, who is on the Centre County Drug and Alcohol Task Force, says the biggest concern for the department with medical marijuana is impaired drivers. Since using the product is not allowed on-site at the dispensary, there is little concern about patients using at the facility and driving away impaired, which is often the case at suboxone clinics.

Schaffer has no issue with people using cannabis as a medicine if it indeed has medical properties, but he feels the law was passed too hastily without a full understanding of how marijuana use impacts driving ability. He cites studies that suggest that impairment can continue even after the police are able detect the substance in the bloodstream of everyday users.

Further, because marijuana is still considered a Schedule 1 narcotic federally, along with the fact that the state law concerning the use of the drug is unclear, he says that there are many gray areas for police on how to treat people who are using the medication.

“I really wish they wouldn’t have rushed into it, and thought everything through before it became law,” Schaffer says.

The way the law reads, it is not permissible to change the chemical compound of the medical product, he says. It is also not permissible for the dispensary to sell edible products such as cookies or brownies with medical marijuana in them. Schaffer questions that someone who makes edibles with their legal marijuana oil has changed the chemical composition.

“So before, if we pulled over someone with a tray of pot brownies, they were getting taken in. Now, if they have a card, we have a decision to make. We have to ask them questions and do an investigation, and make a decision based off of that,” he says.

Law enforcement and the Department of Health are going to have to learn as they go along, he says.

‘Night  and day’ 

Natalie Healy started working as a patient-care provider at Nature’s Medicine soon after it opened so she could learn as much about medical marijuana as possible. Her son Christopher has severe autism, and as he has grown older his self-harming behavior has gotten worse. You can see the exhaustion in her eyes as a mother who has tried everything to get her son the help that he needs.

Healy and her husband, Dan, didn’t know what to do anymore, and she hoped that medical marijuana might be a possible solution. Christopher is non- verbal and when he becomes frustrated he often becomes violent toward himself, she says.

“He does a lot self- harming. He will punch himself, he will hit himself in the face, he has broken his foot. He has broken his nose numerous times,” says Healy.

After a long wait to see a doctor who was able to give an adolescent a certification, she finally was able to get a marijuana card for Christopher, and right away she noticed a difference. “After starting it, it was like night and day; we did see a change. He usually self-harms at night, and then he didn’t. He has been more focused,” Healy says. It is early in the process and not a 100 percent cure, but the family is hopeful that they have found some relief.

Managing pain 

Nia Rodiguez – wife, mom, and co-manager of the dispensary – removes from a labeled medical bag a pen- like instrument that helps her manage her pain. It is odd to see this drug that has been demonized in so many government-made commercials and after-school specials in a labeled prescription bag. But for years, the contrast between medicine and illicit drugs has become foggier. As the opioid and prescription drug crisis has worsened, medical marijuana has become more common in the United States.

Nia takes the pen and pushes a small black liquid out of the tip. She ingests a drop of the distilled oil a quarter of the size of a grain of rice once in the morning and once at night to manage her pain. She says it tastes bad, but it is worth it. She has suffered from the discomfort of scoliosis since she was a child and, along with arthritis that has developed in her spine, she struggled to work and be the type of mom that she likes to be. Other pain meds left her feeling doped-up and groggy, while she says the little bit of marijuana she uses allows her to function as a mom and a business manager.

Nia and Angel are open with their children about the medicine they use, and are glad to be a part of the State College community. They welcome questions from the community about the dispensary and what they offer.

A temporary clinic 

There are six Centre County doctors listed by the Department of Health who are able to certify patients for medical marijuana. Seeing a need for more options, Medical Marijuana Solutions sets up shop with a makeshift office in the Ramada Hotel and Conference Center in State College once a week with Dr. Nico Roscoe of Pittsburgh.

Medical Marijuana Solutions was started by Centre County native and Penn State alumnus Ben Lago with three offices in the Pittsburgh area. Lago hopes to find a more permanent office in State College sometime soon, but is glad to provide the area help navigating the new process, even in less than ideal circumstances.

After traveling from Altoona, it was a bit confusing for Dawn Bare and her son Brad when they pulled up to the Ramada.

“It is just what they have to do. It is almost like you feel like you are doing something that is not right. I am tired of the stigma, the whole taboo,” says Dawn Bare. She is concerned that her son will be labeled for using medical marijuana, but the nurse and advocate says she knows it could help him.

Brad suffers from a rare disorder called cystinuria that leaves him prone to getting kidney stones on a chronic basis. While waiting to meet with the doctor, Brad is tired from the opioid-based pain medications he has been taking to help manage his pain. He can barely stay awake.

Lago helps mother and son navigate all the state paperwork on a computer and offers tips on resources before they meet with Roscoe to review the charts and speak to make sure that they have the correct diagnosis.

Chronic pain is perhaps the most vague condition under the state’s medical marijuana law, and one of the more common issues seen at the once-a-week clinic at the Ramada.

Brad describes the sharp stabbing bladder and kidney pain that he deals with as registering at a six to eight on a scale of 10. He hopes that medical marijuana is a chance to relieve the pain and allow him not to be knocked out, tired all the time, or to potentially become addicted to stronger prescription medications.

“If it helps, then what is the harm? I think that the opioids are a lot more harmful than the actual medical marijuana,” Brad says. “It is more easy to overdose. You can’t overdose on medical marijuana. If it takes the pain away too, then why wouldn’t you take it?”

Marijuana’s effects 

THC is the cannabinoid that is known to cause the high that is associated with marijuana. It is available in most of the medical marijuana products; different cannabinoids in cannabis affect people differently, depending on the specific cannabinoid and the location in the body. Marijuana manufactured as medicine includes a larger amount of specific cannabinoids to treat particular symptoms, and not all will get a patient high, depending on the ratio of cannabinoids in the medicine, says Dr. John Metcalf of Releaf Specialists.

At Nature’s Medicines, Angel Rodriguez says the pharmacists speak with patients about what they are looking to get out of their medicine and suggest that they start off slowly so they can manage their pain appropriately and fully function.

Many of the products offer results that promise typical marijuana high effects. Creams and transdermal patches offer longer-term and sometimes localized relief with minimal high-like feelings.

Educating patients 

When a patient receives a card, he or she is free to visit the dispensary to meet with a pharmacist to review the patient’s medical history and current medications to determine what type of medical marijuana is most appropriate.

“Our main concern in  for the patients’ comfort levels to be met,” Angel Rodriguez says. “We don’t want them to be rushed into anything. We want them to be educated; that’s why the pharmacist is in-house.”

Many of the patients  that come in are looking to get off of prescription and illicit drugs, he says.

“We have a few patients who have come off completely all their medications. Others who are gradually coming off. We have patients who are addicted to meth, addicted to numerous drugs, and now they are clean and it is night and day compared to when we saw them a month ago to now; it is two different people. Those are the things we look for,” he says.

From cancer patients who find comfort and their appetite back, to former service members suffering from PTSD who find a way to cope, the Rodriguezes feel good about what they do and what they are bringing to the community.

“I am not going to say that it is a miracle drug, because nothing is a miracle. There is no cure for certain things, but it sure beats the alternative,” Nia says. “But to me, it is a miracle drug.” 

Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette




Vincent Corso is a freelance writer from State College.
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