By Patrick Wagner
PORTLAND, Maine – One company owns a prominent share of Maine’s highly-regulated medical cannabis market.
Only eight dispensaries are permitted to operate in the state and half belong to Wellness Connection of Maine. With all eyes on the 2016 election for the legalization of adult use cannabis, many look to Wellness Connection as a sign of what is on the horizon.
“The downside is that we have very stringent regulatory requirements for dispensaries in Maine, but the upside is that we have exceptionally well-run facilities,” said Becky DeKeuster, co-founder and director of community and education for the dispensary chain.
When legalization does come to the Northeast corner of the U.S., Maine’s existing dispensaries will stand as model businesses, thanks to the stringent regulations, DeKeuster said.
DeKeuster has spent the majority of her time with the community at large, answering questions and meeting with police and city officials. She said transparency is paramount for people to understand Wellness Connection’s mission. Most of the campaigning is done before a site has been picked for development to gauge the community reaction.
“There’s still that fear in a lot of communities that if a dispensary locates there that it will bring property values down and it will drive other businesses out,” DeKeuster said. “Our experience over the last four years has been the opposite.
“Between our staff and our patients, we’re supporting other local businesses. Especially the restaurants,” she said with a laugh.
Wellness Connection has established a universal theme at its four locations. The stores have wide-open spaces with soft green walls, black leather couches and large consultation areas. They look to be a cross between a doctor’s waiting room and a Starbucks — clean and warm, without losing the health-centric atmosphere.
“Our branding is consistent in each of the four locations, and really what we wanted was a place that felt welcoming,” DeKeuster said. “There are a lot of misconceptions about what a dispensary is and so our focus and our goal was to create an environment that was warm and welcoming and feels a little bit like a community center. So when you walk into a WCM facility, you know that it’s us.”
Wellness Connection started in 2010 as part of the Berkley Patient’s Group in California. The licenses were acquired by the group, but residency requirements forced Wellness Connection to become a stand-alone company. DeKeuster was a Catholic high school teacher in San Jose, California, when she was hired by Wellness Connection.
“They said, ‘Hey, it would be a big career shift for you,’” DeKeuster said. ”Yeah, under-statement of the century.”