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Queens' Only Medical Marijuana Site Seeks to Overturn 'Stigma' of Use

By Katie Honan | January 22, 2016 2:57pm | Updated on January 24, 2016 4:37pm
 Examples of the medical marijuana available at Vireo Health of New York's new Queens dispensary in Elmhurst, which opened Jan. 22, 2016.
Examples of the medical marijuana available at Vireo Health of New York's new Queens dispensary in Elmhurst, which opened Jan. 22, 2016.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

ELMHURST — The borough's first medical marijuana facility opened Friday inside a bright and airy former clothing shop on Queens Boulevard — but don't expect to find any pot cookies, flavored pot, or "trendy" pot brands.

Vireo Health, at 89-55 Queens Blvd., will be different than other pot dispensaries around the nation in a bid to shed any "stigma" associated with cannabis use, CEO Ari Hoffnung said.

"There will be no joints here, there will be no pot brownies, we have no products with names that some regard as offensive, like AK 47," he said at the opening ceremony Friday.

"Instead we have pharmaceutical-grade medical cannabis, dispensed not by 'budtenders,' who have little to no training, but dispensed by New York State licensed pharmacists who have years of training in pharmaceuticals and supplementary training in cannabis."

The medicinal pot is packaged like most pharmacy items, in white paper bags, officials said.

"It's very much like going into any other pharmacy and picking up your Tylenol or blood pressure medication," Vireo Health's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Laura Bultman, said. "No images of leaves here. We will not have stereotypical imagery."

Treatment will range between $200 and $500 a month, depending on the patient and illness, officials said. It's not covered under insurance, but they do offer discounts for those in financial need.

The group has worked to distance itself from any stigma surrounding marijuana use.

Patients who have received referrals by their licensed doctors, and a card from the state's Department of Health, can visit Vireo by appointment to get the proper treatment.

Around 300 people have registered for the cards so far in New York State, officials said. Patients are mostly suffering from chronic illness, like AIDS, Bultman, said. That number should continue to grow as the statewide program gets off the ground, she said 

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Everyone who enters the facility — designed to look like a sanctuary or high-end medical facility — can discuss treatment in one of four consultation rooms, Bultman said.

Security at the center is high, and the cannabis is kept in a highly-secured safe that wasn't allowed to be photographed. 

The Queens Boulevard storefront of Vireo Health's medical marijuana dispensary. (DNAinfo/Katie Honan)

The cannabis is distributed in three forms — capsules, liquids or in a vape — and it's all certified Kosher, Hoffnung said.

Getting that certification from the Orthodox Union was vital to Vireo in both serving the community and helping establish legitimacy. 

"We are sensitive to religious and dietary needs, and there is a stigma surrounding cannabis," Hoffnung said. 

"We hope getting certification from a religious group will encourage people of all faiths that there's nothing to be ashamed about, or to feel guilty."

They're currently open 12 p.m. until 7 p.m. with rotating days as they build their customer base, Bultman said.