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Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016 02:22 pm

Inside Springfield’s first medical pot shop

Photos of marijuana adorn many of the walls at HCI, Springfield's first medical marijuana dispensary.
Patrick Yeagle

Christy Karhliker used to oppose medical marijuana. Now she runs a shop in Springfield slated to begin selling medical marijuana on Feb. 15.

HCI Alternatives, a licensed medical marijuana dispensary, opened its doors to the media on Feb. 1, providing a preview of the facility before it’s stocked with pot products and becomes off-limits to anyone not licensed by the state.

HCI, short for Health Central Illinois, is one of 28 dispensaries licensed under Illinois’ Medical Cannabis Pilot Program, a temporary program meant to test the waters of easing restrictions on medical marijuana use. Participation in the program is subject to strict rules for dispensaries, cultivation centers and patients, an effort by state lawmakers to prevent Illinois’ program from looking like comparatively lax states like California. HCI also operates a dispensary in Collinsville.

Karhliker, the dispensary manager at HCI in Springfield, says she changed her mind about medical marijauna after seeing a family member and a friend each suffer through illnesses which could have been eased with the use of medical marijuana. Karhliker laughs as she mentions that her husband is a narcotics detective with the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Office.

It’s clear Karhliker is passionate about her new job. She nearly tears up as she recounts stories of patients at HCI’s Collinsville dispensary, which opened last week. Karhliker proudly shows off the security measures in place at the Springfield dispensary, including nightly inventories, a reinforced vault to store products, barbed wire around the delivery port, doors which require two electronic badges to open and which log each entry, and nearly 70 “casino-style” cameras monitoring the facility.

“You can count the freckles on my hand,” she said.

Trouble with the slideshow? View it here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsktE49pS

Employees at HCI will wear scrubs with no pockets to prevent any potential theft, and all employees – including Karhliker – are subject to search at any time.

“No one leaves until inventory is done,” she said.

Karhliker says state regulators track every single marijuana plant “from seed to sale,” and the product comes from the cultivation center pre-packaged, so employees at HCI will never actually see the plants. A centralized, up-to-the-minute database tracks which patients are registered to purchase from which dispensaries, according to Karhliker, and each patient can only be registered at one dispensary at a time.

“It’s not like you could go to Walgreens and then go down the road to CVS,” she said.

On display in HCI’s purchasing area were plates of cookies representing products which will contain THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The lobby and purchasing area look more like a modern hotel than a place to buy weed, which Karhliker and HCI CEO Chris Stone say is by design. They hope the professional appearance will help remove some of the stigma surrounding medical marijuana.

"The patients are afraid of the stigma; they're not afraid of the drug," Karhliker said.

Stone said several law enforcement officers from the City of Springfield, the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Office and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency toured the facility last week. While he jokes that the visit made him somewhat anxious, he says the federal budget bill passed in December contained a rider directing federal agencies not to raid medical marijuana facilities in states where it’s legal.

Despite a market outlook report released Feb. 1 by ArcView Market Research saying the medical marijuana industry in Illinois has a grim outlook because the number of registered patients is too low, Stone is optimistic. He says demand for medical marijuana will likely grow as the pilot program becomes more established. In fact, he says nearly 30 percent of patients in the program became licensed in November and December of last year, just before the program was scheduled to begin.

Asked whether the number of patients licensed by the state to use medical marijuana is enough to sustain the industry, given the hefty investment required, Karhliker says probably not. However, she expects the pilot program to be extended beyond 2018 and the current list of 39 qualifying ailments to be expanded. She laments that the Illinois Department of Public Health announced on Jan. 29 it would not include post-traumatic stress disorder – common among military combat veterans – on the list of approved conditions.

HCI will offer one-on-one patient consultations to pick the best marijuana product for a given situation. Their Springfield facility has charts listing which strains of the plant work best with which ailments, similar to a wine pairing list.

Stone says HCI’s Collinsville dispensary has 153 registered clients, most of whom have already visited the shop at least once. He says the price per gram for medical marijuana at HCI will be about $14 or $15, which he says isn’t significantly higher than the $13 or $14 per gram street price. The price at the dispensary varies based on the type of product, Stone said. Qualified patients will be able to purchase up to 2.5 ounces of medical marijuana products such as the usual plant flower, skin patches, lotions, candies, cookies, “vape” juice and more.

Karhliker says one benefit of paying a slightly higher price from a dispensary is knowing that the product is pure and safe. A laboratory tests every medical marijuana product before it reaches dispensaries, she says. In contrast, she says illegal dealers sometimes fudge the weight of their product with lead shavings.

“So you’re dealing with this debilitating disease and then you’re adding that on top?” she said.

For more information on the Medical Cannabis Pilot Program, visit www.illinois.gov/gov/mcpp.

Contact Brittany Hilderbrand at intern@illinoistimes.com.
Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.


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