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Marijuana dispensary becomes only the second to open in Virginia.

RICHMOND- Green Leaf Medical first opened its doors three weeks ago. But you can’t just walk in and order marijuana without a prescription. There’s a bit more involved.

“A lot of people walking through the door and say, I can’t believe this program is here,” said CEO Phillip Goldberg. “I mean, people are coming in, in walkers, wheelchairs, crutches, you know. There’s truly sick people walking in the door, looking for a treatment option. And so from that perspective, I think it’s really important because so many of these patients have already been treating themselves through that illicit market and allowing them to purchase medical cannabis legally is a game changer for these people.”

The dispensary offers products ranging from oils to resins. They’re currently in the process creating a line of edible products. In the next few weeks, Green Leaf will be carrying cannabis infused treats like chocolates and gummies.

Green Leaf also offers a delivery service for their customers. Not just in Richmond, but for the entire Commonwealth. Currently, due to rules from the Board of Pharmacy, customers must make their first purchase in person. However, after their first purchase, they’re free to use the delivery service if they want.

READ MORE: After Multiple Delays, Virginia’s First Marijuana Dispensary Opens Up

Opening During a Pandemic

Goldberg formed Green Leaf  in 2014, starting the operation in Maryland. After expanding to Ohio and Pennsylvania, he applied to sell medical marijuana in Virginia in 2018.

Unfortunately, they had to delay their opening plans. Originally they planned to open the Richmond location at the beginning October, but the pandemic got in the way.

“COVID has hindered all of our operations in the Mid-Atlantic region in different ways,” said Goldberg. “It has impacted construction crews, how many people they can have on the ground. Also, how many people they can have in the same room working. It’s definitely has been a lot to deal with.”

Now, the company has strict COVID-19 protocols in place to keep their staff and patients safe.

“We’ve taken all the precautions necessary. We have a COVID response team in our company that meets three times a week to engage in planning, to review with all the general managers of every facility,” said Goldberg. “How many people have called out? Are we checking temperatures every single day? Does everybody have enough PPE? Here’s the state guidelines. We have to make sure employees aren’t traveling.”

However, according to Goldberg, the delay wasn’t entirely COVID-19’s fault. Rather than rush towards making a deadline, Green Leaf had to make sure all their products were up to code. Not only to meet the Board of Pharmacy’s standards, but to also keep their patients safe.

“It’s a brand new market and a brand new industry in Virginia,” said Goldberg. “We have to lab test our products. Once they’re lab tested. They need to go to the state to have products registered and approved. So, as we were moving through that process, since it was brand new for everybody, there were some delays.”

In terms of standards, the Board of Pharmacy requires that all dispensaries maintain an electronic categorization system, a pharmaceutical processor permit and lab testing to check for microbiological, mycotoxin, heavy metal, and pesticide chemical residue. 

If part of the sample doesn’t pass the test, the dispensary has to throw out the entire batch.

Importance of Weeding out Bad Quality

Just like any other type of medication, it’s important that patients know exactly what they’re taking. Not all medical marijuana is the same. Patients should keep an eye out for specific components, depending on what effects they’re looking for.

Every medical marijuana strain has its own unique cannabinoid and terpene profile. A cannabinoid is a chemical compound that causes most of the medicinal effects. Two well known cannabinoids are CBD (cannabidiol) or THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).

Terpenes, on the other hand, are what gives cannabis its unique smell. Most fruits and plants also have a terpene profile that medical marijuana can mimic. Ever wonder why weed and hoppy beers smell so similar? That’s all thanks to a terpene called “myrcene”. It’s found in both hops and many strands of commercial cannabis.

Depending on these profiles, medical marijuana can have different effects on someone’s body. According to Goldberg, even two people with identical illnesses, ages and body types might have different reactions to the same strain.

“Myrcene tends to make people feel more sedated,” said Goldberg. “And other terpenes make you feel more uplifted and so on and so forth. And so it’s important to know that cannabinoid profile as well as the terpene profile. That’s what’s revealed in that lab testing.”

But these tests don’t just tell you marijuana’s chemical makeup. It also weeds out contaminated products. Without lab testing, these products could potentially contain mold and harmful bacteria like E.coli.

READ MORE: Legal Weed Could Bring in $300 Million for Virginia. Northam Says He’s Ready for It.

Dangers of Buying from the Illicit Market

One of the biggest things that separates dispensaries and the illegal market is the quality control. Anyone looking to buy from the illicit market runs the risk of unregulated, untested products.

“The worst case scenario is that you have someone growing in that illicit market who was spraying pesticide all over that plant,” said Goldberg. “Then selling that either molded or pesticide ridden plant material to a patient who is trying to reduce their anxiety or deal with their chronic pain or dealing with their seizure disorder, they could potentially get very sick.”

Lab testing also makes the process easier for patients to get consistent results from their treatment. Without knowing the cannabinoid or terpene profiles, it can be hard to know what works for them, especially newcomers.

“It’s very hard to duplicate their results in the illicit market,” said Goldberg. “People buying there will say, Oh man, like two months ago, ‘I had the best strain. It was perfect for me. I wish I could find it again.’ Not even really sure what it was, or maybe it was labeled with some funny name. It was more of a marketing thing, you know? So it’s very, just very hard to duplicate your results in that market.

On a more extreme note, people buying unregulated marijuana also run the risk of exposure to harder drugs or dangerous substances. Currently, dispensaries follow strict rules set by the Board of Pharmacy. In Virginia, people are only allowed to buy 90 days worth of medical marijuana and they must be registered beforehand.

Marijuana Legalization

When it comes marijuana-related reform, Virginia has made huge strides in the last year alone.

Earlier this year, Virginia became the 34th state to decriminalize  marijuana. Since July, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana carriers a civil penaly in the Commonwealth.

And while this should be celebrated, there are still several actions that legislators can take to make the plant more available.

The plant is still illegal in Virginia, and the criminal records of people with marijuana-related charges are not sealed or expunged.

There are also limitations on the types of products dispensaries can sell, which Goldberg says restricts their ability to serve patients.

For example, dispensaries like Green Leaf can pretty much sell everything, except the flower itself. This is a problem because, for some people, the flower might be their most effective form of treatment.

“The reason it’s so popular is when you perform extractions on the flower, many of those extraction techniques are removing specific cannabinoids like THC and CBD,” said Goldberg. “You’re getting to take advantage of the entire broad, full plant spectrum of cannabinoids. “

Last month Gov. Ralph Northam announced plans to reform Virginia’s marijuana-related laws even more. These reforms include plans to legalize the plant. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) recommends legalizing the flower, but limiting possession to only 1 oz.

“There’s going to be a lot of discussion on both sides of this and we’ll probably have a better idea of what’s happening with flower in the middle of February,” said Goldberg.

Virginia’s next General Assembly session starts on Jan. 13. This session will be shorter than most, and will last less than 30 days. Delegates can only propose seven bills each during this session, down from 15. Senators can only propose 12 bills, less than half of their usual amount. 

First Time Medical Marijuana Users

If you think medical marijuana might be right for you, there are several ways you can access medical marijuana.

Goldberg recommends reaching out to Virgina Medical Cannabis Coalition for resources on how to become a patient. In order to use medical marijuana in Virginia, a registered practitioner must give you a recommendation.

“They will take your history. They will look at your experience level and decide if you’re appropriate for the medical cannabis program,” said Goldberg. “And then once you have that done, you can register on our website. So, when you first go to our website, we’ll say, are you already registered? If yes, then it takes you right into our website to register and be ready to come straight into the dispensary. If not, it’s going to walk you through the process on how you get registered. “

Arianna Coghill is a content producer for Dogwood. You can reach her at arianna@couriernewsroom.com.