When Nick Tamborrino moved into his newly expanded medical marijuana dispensary, it came with its own vault for storing the drugs.
Formerly a Santander Bank branch at 471 E. Main St., the space is almost three times larger, at 3,500 square feet, than Bluepoint Wellness of Connecticut’s original location, which was situated behind Planet Fitness next door and opened in September 2014.
“When we started we had about 400 patients,” Tamborrino said. Now the four pharmacists, including Tamborrino, see 2,300 patients, as the number of registered medical marijuana users in Connecticut has grown past 15,000. He’s doubled his staff of pharmacists and has a total staff of 13.
“The patient count has … more than doubled in the state of Connecticut,” Tamborrino said, boosted by the 2016 expansion of the law to allow minors to use medical cannabis. “The patient who was just in here was a pediatric mom,” Tamborrino said.
The number of dispensaries in the state also has increased, from the original six to eight, with a ninth, which has met neighborhood resistance, planned in Milford. Much of the growth has come because “the doctors are looking at medical marijuana as a legit treatment option,” Tamborrino said. “It’s not frowned upon anymore. … We’re seeing hundreds of doctors at this point certifying patients.” As of Friday, 586 doctors have registered to do so.
The vault isn’t the only thing Bluepoint Wellness has in common with the bank that previously inhabited the space. The counter where prescriptions are picked up looks very much like tellers’ windows. Otherwise, Tamborrino has tried to keep the same welcoming feeling at the new location as he had at his first dispensary.
The six dozen varieties and formulations are listed on a board in the lobby. Patients, who are allowed 2.5 ounces of marijuana per month, can choose from Curaleaf Sapphire Oil for vaping at $20 for 100 milligrams or Advanced Grow Labs’ Sativum OB Red Velvet Brownie, with 10 milligrams of THC, for $10. Slightly less than an ounce (28 grams) of CT Pharmaceutical Solutions’ Lexikan T30, with 29.95 percent THC, goes for $390.
The number of patients who prefer forms of cannabis that are eaten or ingested — as oils and capsules, for example — has doubled in the last two years, to as many as 40 percent of Tamborrino’s patients. The rest smoke or use vaping pens.
“We try to provide the best option for patients,” depending on whether they want a quick high to relieve pain or a long-lasting effect to help them sleep, Tamborrino said.
“Pain is a big, big condition that we’ve had great success with,” he said. “Patients have been able to decrease their opioid use. It’s really been quite remarkable. They’re able to not depend on them; they’ve been able to decrease their dose while decreasing withdrawal symptoms. They feel like they have their life back.”
Many of those patients have cancer or spinal cord injuries, two of the 22 conditions eligible to be treated with marijuana (there are six conditions registered for use by minors).
Tamborrino acknowledges that, unlike a traditional pharmacist, he and his patients decide by trial and error what form of cannabis to use. Doctors only certify patients to buy medical marijuana; they don’t prescribe it. Whether the patient uses indica or sativa strains, or a hybrid, is the result of consultation between patient and pharmacist.
Tamborrino said indica has “more sedative-type properties,” which help reduce pain and enable better sleep. Sativa “could be good for anxiety disorders, where patients still want a clear-focused and productive day,” he said. Post-traumatic stress disorder is one of the conditions for which marijuana can be used.
“Whereas in the hospital we’re taking orders from the doctors, in this new industry the pharmacist plays a significant role in terms of which formulation to dispense,” Tamborrino said. “There was definitely a big learning curve. To try to establish a comfort level with different products was important.”
“What makes Connecticut’s program different is that the pharmacists are involved,” Tamborrino said. “We’re not looking just to dispense cannabis.” Rather, they are on the lookout for interactions with other medications and any side effects from taking marijuana.
“This is what pharmacists do, day in and day out, in terms of monitoring drug therapy regimens,” said Tamborrino, who was formerly a Bridgeport Hospital pharmacist.
When it comes to diseases like cancer, “a lot of times we try to establish treatment goals right out of the gate,” Tamborrino said. For example, they might look for a form of cannabis that will reduce side effects from chemotherapy: nausea, vomiting or loss of appetite.
Connecticut, one of 28 states that have legalized medical marijuana, is one of the few that uses the pharmaceutical model, and Tamborrino said there is not a lot of research available to guide the pharmacists. The state Department of Consumer Protection recently approved two research projects, at Connecticut Hospice in Branford and St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, despite marijuana still being listed as an illegal drug on the federal level.
Among the diseases that remain to be studied is cancer. There is no scientific evidence to support their claims, but some patients report that marijuana has reduced the cancer itself.
Tamborrino said, however, that doctors who certify cancer patients are doing so to relieve pain and withdrawal symptoms, because the research doesn’t exist to show that marijuana actually fights the malignancy.
“Every day, hearing the success stories, that’s what it’s really about,” Tamborrino said. “Taking the individual patient and trying to get positive results. And having cannabis looked at as a true medication option is most rewarding.”
The state Consumer Protection Department’s Board of Physicians, recently expanded from five to nine members, including Commissioner Jonathan Harris, will hold a hearing Jan. 11, when petitions will be heard to add new medical conditions to the list of those that can be treated with medical marijuana. The conditions are atopic dermatitis and eczema; fibromyalgia; muscular dystrophy; osteoarthritis; post-herpatic neuralgia and peripheral neuropathy and allodynia from shingles; rheumatoid arthritis; and severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema.
The hearing will be held at 8:30 a.m. at the department’s new offices, 450 Columbus Blvd., Hartford, North Meeting Room D.