RISE Joppa, operated by Green Thumb Industries, holds its grand opening Friday. It is the first medical cannabis dispensary in Harford County. (David Anderson)
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Edgewood resident Chris Smith was impressed with the operations in RISE Joppa, a former Pulaski Highway liquor story that has been converted into the first medical cannabis dispensary in Harford County.
"It looks great in here, to be honest with you," Smith told patient care specialist Julie Burgdorf as he waited for his medications.
Smith, 25, was one of a steady steam of patients who came into RISE Friday, the dispensary's first day in business. It is one of three medical marijuana dispensaries in Maryland operated by parent company Green Thumb Industries, or GTI.
There are 46 licensed dispensaries statewide, according to the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission website.
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"I think that it's wonderful," patient Kelly Simmons, of Joppa, said.
She said people have used marijuana for medical reasons "for a long time."
"I'm glad to see that the state's finally catching up," Simmons said.
Smith, who had patronized the former liquor store, described the new dispensary as "beautiful."
"It really has changed, it's pretty awesome," he told a reporter. "It blew me away when I walked in, I didn't recognize it."
Patients came in the front entrance, signed in and filled out paperwork and were then let into the service area.
The dispensary's patient service area resembles a coffee bar, where patients can sit at glass cases and see the various types of cannabis-based products and discuss their options with dispensary employees.
Former Baltimore Raven Eugene Monroe, a partner in GTI and advocate for medical cannabis, greeted patients and chatted with employees.
"We look to continue to increase awareness and education about the benefits of medical cannabis," Monroe said.
There are about 10 employees at RISE Joppa, but that number is expected to increase in anticipation of more patients as word continues to get out, he said.
"We're excited to really be the first dispensary to open here in Harford County," Monroe said.
Monroe was in the NFL from 2009 until his retirement in 2016. The left tackle was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars and traded to the Ravens in 2013, according to his personal website.
Monroe was released by the Ravens in June of 2016, after multiple injuries made it too difficult for him to play. He became an advocate for medical cannabis while still in the NFL as he recovered from shoulder surgery, according to a team news release.
Monroe said Friday that he recognizes the benefits of medical cannabis for relief of pain and inflammation, rather than prescription opioids, but he also sees the business opportunities in the growing industry, as well as the opportunities to help the community.
He said he did his "due diligence" on medical cannabis, traveled around the country and even met with Pete Kadens, director and CEO of the Illinois-based GTI.
Green Thumb Industries cultivates and processes medical cannabis, and it operates dispensaries in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Illinois and Massachusetts, according to its website.
Monroe said "I really believe in GTI's mission" outside of just providing medical cannabis.
"We have a strong social mission, and everyone in the company believes in the power of what creating access to this plant can do for people," he said.
Patient Simmons, 41, said medical cannabis helps with issues such as migraines.
"I feel like, on a personal level, it helps physically and emotionally," she said.
Smith said he uses the products for back pain and stomach issues.
"I've been talking to so many people about how they're going to stop using painkillers," he said.
Smith said he thinks medical cannabis "is going to be the future, hopefully give the pharmaceutical companies a run for their money."
Prescription painkillers have been blamed as a major cause of the heroin and opiate epidemic gripping Harford County, the state and the nation.
There have been 130 suspected opioid overdoses in Harford County so far in 2018, 33 of them fatal, according to Sheriff's Office statistics.
The county government, like many other local governments in Maryland and across the U.S., is preparing to sue opioid manufacturers and distributors in an effort to recover the costs of dealing with the epidemic.
Store manager Alec Orr worked in the marijuana industry in Colorado, where pot is legal for medical and recreational use, before coming to Maryland to work for RISE.
He said medical cannabis "makes a huge impact on the opioid epidemic" in areas where it is legal.
He said patients, "mainly people looking for natural relief," from all walks of life patronize dispensaries.
"That's something that that we're excited about, especially in this county," he said, referring to Harford's opioid issues.
Frank Brocato, 75, of Joppa, said he has patronized dispensaries in Ellicott City, Dundalk and Perryville.
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"This is the closest one [to me]," he said. "I'll probably be coming here from now on."
Brocato said medical cannabis allows him to do things, such as work outside, that he could not do otherwise because of arthritis pain in both shoulders, knees and his neck.
"Without this, I have arthritis all over my body, and this allows me to function," he said.
Brocato said he no longer takes anti-inflammatory drugs, although he takes half an aspirin for cardio-vascular issues. He said the cannabis helps with arthritis pain and inflammation, and it helps increase his range of motion.
He bent to touch his knees, and he put his fist in the air to show how he can move his shoulders.
Brocato said patients do not get "stoned" when they use medical cannabis.
"We're not in here to get high," he said. "We're here to get relief from our pain and suffering."
Originally Published: Apr 27, 2018 at 6:01 pm