Growth Business: Inside Montclair’s Medical Marijuana Dispensary

In a nondescript storefront, professional “budtenders” dispense Jersey-raised cannabis to patients.

The dark-glass storefront of 395 Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair gives no hint of what’s inside. A security guard—unarmed—stands at a podium outside the store with a list of people to be admitted for the day. The guard confirms a visitor’s identity, then punches in a code on the keypad to unlock the door. The password changes daily.

Inside, the atmosphere is soothing. “How much pain are you in right now?” asks a sign at the reception desk. The visitor chooses from among five cartoon symbols, ranging from a bright smiley face to one crying in agony.

This is the waiting room of the Greenleaf Compassion Center, one of New Jersey’s three medical marijuana dispensaries. Opened in December 2012, it was the first such Alternative Treatment Center (ATC) on the East Coast.

New Jersey’s medical marijuana law, enacted in January 2010, calls for six ATCs to open around the state; to date, only three are up and running. Rollout of the other expected ATCs has been slowed by several factors, including concerns in some communities that they would invite crime and loitering. But such fears have proven unfounded in Montclair, where Mayor Robert Jackson describes the dispensary as a “nonevent” for the township. “I have not personally, nor has the Montclair police department reported any negative impacts surrounding the location,” Jackson says. Still, other ATCs have had trouble securing a location or wading through the extensive background checks on potential owners and backers.

Funding is also difficult, since banks are unwilling to make loans to marijuana businesses. Greenleaf CEO Julio Valentin Jr. says the only outside start-up money his ATC received was from Sanjeev and Parita Patel, an entrepreneurial couple from Union with experience in hydroponics, an emerging agribusiness. Sanjeev signed on as vice president; Parita is treasurer. They serve on Greenleaf’s four-person board, along with Valentin and Jordan Matthews, an attorney from Wayne. All four went through a background check of tax records, bank accounts and fingerprints before the state approved a license for Greenleaf.

The waiting room at Greenleaf is similar to most medical offices. An episode of The View plays on a flat screen, and health-and-beauty titles fill the magazine rack. Above the array of comfy leather chairs, a photograph depicts a rope bridge stretching across a misty abyss. A steel door at one end of the waiting room provides access to the consultation and dispensing room. Multiple security cameras discreetly record all who enter.

The dispensing room is not unlike a bank. Sanjeev Patel, who is also a patient consultant, greets visitors at his desk. There’s an ATM; for now, business is conducted in cash since banks and credit-card companies are reluctant to process the transactions. Marijuana, after all, is still banned under federal law.

Patel examines each patient’s doctor recommendation for treatment and answers any questions and concerns. A chart explains the three different types of cannabis: indica, sativa and hybrids of the two. Indicas create a feeling of relaxation and stress relief, though stronger varieties can leave some patients glued to the couch. Indicas can also help with inflammation, sleep disorders, anorexia, spasms and seizures, among other ailments. Sativa, known for its anti-depressive and energizing properties, is better for daytime use. Hybrids tend to have the best of both worlds; they are relaxing without leaving the user feeling like a couch potato.

For many patients, purchasing marijuana is an entirely foreign experience. “A lot of patients are really hesitant,” says Valentin. “They don’t know if they are doing something wrong.” But such fears are soon dispelled. “Once they get to know us,” says Valentin, “they see we are here to help. And that they don’t have to worry about being arrested or harassed.”

Valentin, 45, a former Newark police officer and undercover security guard, personally designed Greenleaf from scratch. The state, he says, provides minimal guidelines for dispensary layout. Along with stringent security measures, Valentin opted for a conservative, comforting look, with warm browns and greens. It’s hardly a head shop, although there are some hints of hippie culture—including a display of bongs, gifts from patients.

Greenleaf sells a few cheap lighters, plastic grinders (used to grind or break up the dried plant so it’s easier to smoke) and simple pipes. “We advise patients to check online for places that might have them cheaper,” says Valentin. “We sell the lighters for $1.25—even gas stations have them more expensive. We aren’t looking to make a profit on our patients.” The dispensary also sells vaporizers, devices that produce a clean vapor instead of smoke. The vaporizers are similar to e-cigarettes and tend to sell out quickly.

Business, says Valentin, is picking up. “We are doing much better than we were a year ago, or even six months ago,” he says. Last winter, Greenleaf served about 100 patients; this fall, it was serving nearly 500, which Valentin says is double the dispensary’s original projections.

The cannabis comes in sealed quarter-ounce packages, which sell for about $125. Unlike programs in other states, patients can’t smell or touch the dried plant before purchasing. Valentin, the dispensary’s “budtender”—as sellers are known in the business—handles all transactions at the teller-style counters. Each package is labeled with a bar code assigned to the plant when it was an infant clone growing inside a warehouse an hour away at an undisclosed location in rural Sussex County.

Greenleaf is the only New Jersey dispensary that grows cannabis at a separate location. Security cameras provide 24-hour video surveillance at the warehouse. Valentin frequently checks the video from his iPhone.

The warehouse stands at the end of a winding drive through a forested valley. Inside the building, with its series of climate-controlled organic grow rooms filled with lush plants, the highly-oxygenated air is pungent with the scent of pot plants. It feels rejuvenating—much like any greenhouse. Each room boasts plants in various stages of growth. They thrive on filtered water and a calculated flow of carbon dioxide and humidity. The stocky plants are supported by string trellises, which help keep the stems straight under the weight of the flowering buds.

It takes about three months for a plant to reach full maturity, which is apparent when the female pistils, or long hairs around the buds, change from clear to milky white to amber. At that point, each plant is harvested, dried, trimmed and packaged. While the pot leaf, resembling a seven-pointed star, is the cultural symbol of cannabis, these fan leaves are cut away during harvest. Valentin transports the packaged buds in an unmarked vehicle from the warehouse to the dispensary.

Quality control is paramount. The state health department continuously tests the plants for pests, mildew, heavy metals and pesticides. Employees wash their hands and arms and change into scrubs before entering the facility to prevent small insects, particularly spider mites, from hitching a ride into the growing and trimming rooms.

Valentin takes pride in his garden. He describes his plants as a “modern medicine that’s very ancient.” He talks to the plants every day. As the carbon dioxide from his lungs fills the room, the plants appear to sit up straighter, almost like children listening to Harry Potter stories. Valentin is working on installing a koi pond that will naturally filter the water. His philosophy is that healthy and happy plants make healthy and happy patients.

“I’ve seen everyone improve,” he says. “Patients tell us they are finally off of three or four different pills that they were on for years. I have this one gentleman…he came in in the beginning hunched, very pale, very slow speech, very thin, very quiet. You could see it in his eyes that he was in a lot of pain. And now this same gentleman comes in, he’s gained weight and lots of color. He puts a smile on my face as he says ‘Hey Julio! How you doin’?’”

Click here to read about the difficulties parents have had aquiring medical marijuana for their epileptic children.

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