HALLOWELL, Maine — From the brick sidewalk lining the main street of this tiny city of antiques and bistros, you can dodge up a wide alley and make a quick turn to see an unobtrusive white sign near a door.
You've found the Wellness Connection of Maine, the newest of the eight medical marijuana dispensaries allowed in the state following a referendum that passed in 2009.
The law expanded the conditions under which people could be prescribed the drug, and allowed retail dispensaries where patients may legally buy marijuana with a doctor's prescription to ease the pain of chronic diseases.
But despite the 3-2 vote of support statewide, Maine towns and cities have not always welcomed medical marijuana facilities with open arms. Some slapped moratoriums on them, and worried residents effectively barred them from their neighborhoods.
In Hallowell, the city of 2,400 nestled in Augusta's shadow, Mayor Charlotte Warren turned out to formally welcome the state's latest dispensary in the spirit of its "good neighbor policy."
Warren said she understands that some people's reservations about medical marijuana but is confident that "this will be a professionally operated medical center."
The nonprofit Wellness Connection opened its doors last week for what may be non-patients' only inside look at the facility. A Wellness Connection dispensary has also opened in Thomaston and two others, in Portland and Brewer, will open in the weeks ahead. Compassion Center operates a Lewiston dispensary.
State law allows a total of eight dispensaries in the state, each serving a distinct region. The 2,400-square-foot Hallowell facility's entrance is placed in a discreet location off the main drag but still easily accessible to patients.
The typical person among the 30 or so being treated is 40 to 50 years old, suffers from a serious illness and was referred by a doctor, said the center's Faith Benedetti. A security system blocks out the curious who might otherwise walk in, and only those who show they are authorized to use cannabis are admitted.
Once inside, they sit in a large room with soft chairs and discuss treatment options with staff. The center also has a small kitchenette and a restroom. The walls are mostly spring-green, matching the soft colors in the two treatment rooms, and in places the walls are broken up by lengths of split birch trees that give the feeling of outdoors.
"We don't assume patients know a lot about cannabis," said Benedetti. They discuss strains of the plant; which ones may work best for what condition; and if the patient wants it administered, whether it will be smoked, eaten in cookies, lozenges or other treats, or taken in vaporized form.
The patients who come in are not seen as customers, said Wellness Executive Director Becky DeKeuster.
"They are a part of the Wellness Connection family. We will know the names and faces of every patient who comes here," said DeKeuster. Patients will be encouraged to talk to one another.
"Isolation, loneliness and despair are too often a part of serious illness. We don't want that for our patients."
Maine is among 17 states that have legalized marijuana for sick people, but local governments are using their laws increasingly to restrict or outlaw them outright. The law approved by Maine voters in 2009 jump-started a decade-old medical marijuana law by expanding the conditions under which people could be prescribed the drug.
The law allows three ways for eligible patients to take the drug: through dispensaries, from caregivers who also grow the pot under regulated conditions or from patients who also grow their own. Dispensaries' marijuana is grown in undisclosed locations.
A medical marijuana user in Portland, who asked that his name not be used to protect his privacy given the controversial nature of the drug, said marijuana is very effective in reducing pain and eases the muscle stiffness he experiences due to his multiple sclerosis.
This makes getting in and out of the car, bathtub and his wheelchair much easier, said the patient, who has a caregiver so won't need a dispensary.
"Medical cannabis has made a huge difference in my daily life," he said.