The new norm

Northeast Philadelphia is on the forefront of medical marijuana practice in the state. Dispensaries, clinics and organizations like Philly NORML have made the medicine a relevant and polarizing topic in the area.

Rhawnhurst Cafe didn’t see its usual crowd of people grabbing a beer after work on Nov. 16.

This crowd was loud, passionate and united in a single goal: reform the marijuana laws in Pennsylvania.

“This is a very monumental occasion,” said Robert Rudnitsky, the executive director of PhillyNORML, a local chapter of the national movement trying to decriminalize possession of the high-inducing plant. “We are looking at about 18 months since Pennsylvania achieved legal status on medical marijuana.”

Rudnitsky gave a presentation highlighting NORML’s initiatives and medicinal uses of the drug, though the presentation did start an hour late.

“Do you know how difficult it is to arrange a room full of potheads?” he joked.

He used that same point to illustrate the dedication from the room’s 60-plus listeners for showing up to make a difference.

PhillyNORML is a group dedicated to legalizing recreational use of marijuana. While that is the group’s ultimate goal, this presentation focused more on medical marijuana — an issue that has been increasingly relevant to Northeast Philly since June.

Rudnitsky wanted to rally supporters of the plant because he had seen mostly opposition at civic leagues where dispensaries were proposed.

At Normandy Civic Association’s October meeting, the residents voted unanimously against the dispensary, which had been proposed to open at 2719 Comly Road.

In a July meeting at Greater Bustleton Civic League where the health benefits of medical marijuana were discussed, about two-thirds of neighbors voted against the dispensary opening.

“We have people showing up to express negative opinions,” Rudnitsky said. “Where are the people with positive opinions?”

Keith Morgan of Holistic Pharma spoke at the NORML meeting about the proposed Holistic Pharma medical marijuana dispensary for 8900 Krewstown Road.

The dispensary has been a buzzy topic ever since its announcement in late June. The Northeast Times has given extensive coverage to that conversation happening at monthly Greater Bustleton Civic League meetings.

“We are highly optimistic about moving [to Bustleton],” Morgan told the Times before the presentation.

Morgan has still not confirmed for certainty the dispensary’s opening, though the progress being made makes it look like a safe bet. Morgan has already submitted preliminary design plans for the building’s interior and exterior to GBCL president Jack O’Hara.

He also told the Times that he had applied for an extension to open the business, though emphasized he had not received the necessary forms yet at the time.

If the dispensary were to open, he gave a general time frame of first quarter 2018 for it to be fully operational.

Though NORML’s goals extend far beyond the acceptance of medical marijuana, Rudnitsky said legislation is currently at that level.

“These patients will be buying medicine, not drugs,” he said. “All of these patients will have very severe medical conditions and are very appreciative that the state has finally come to their aide with such a compassionate form of medicine.”

Rudnitsky’s presentation focused on the health benefits of the plant, including how it helps those affected by the opioid epidemic, which has taken its toll on Northeast Philadelphia.

Reports show that medical marijuana could help treat opiate addiction, claiming cannabis can prevent opiate tolerance from building, thus nulling the need for dose escalation.

That study has yet to be put to the test on a large scale, though. A bill to add opiate addiction to the list of conditions that could qualify patients for prescription was rejected earlier this year in New Mexico. Opiate addiction is not a medical condition approved for cannabis treatment in Pennsylvania.

There is also a worry about how the dispensaries will affect the neighborhood they are built in. This was the case for the proposed dispensary at 2719 Comly Road in Normandy.

Michele Borbidge, Normandy Civic Association’s president, strongly opposed the opening of the dispensary. She had even filed for an appeal against the permit that approved the construction.

Despite her opposition to this dispensary, Borbidge sympathizes with the use of the medicine.

“After watching my mother suffer from cancer in 2011, I know the pain they endure and understand the need for medicine that will alleviate their pain,” she said. “If medical marijuana helps people with seizures or pain issues, I am in favor of it.”

Ultimately, Morgan decided against the location before the hearing would happen.

Despite the lack of confirmation of the Bustleton dispensary, medical marijuana clinic and advocacy center The Green Remedy has already identified Northeast Philly as the best place to set up shop.

The clinic at 7215B Rising Sun Ave. is the first of its kind in the state.

The clinic moved to the city in the beginning of October and officially opened for business Oct. 28. Chanel Rousseau, part owner, said that the Northeast is an ideal location due to its location proximity and accessibility.

“Northeast Philly is accessible to patients,” she said. “It’s close to a lot of suburbs north of Philadelphia, and reachable for patients in Allentown. We wanted to be accessible for as many residents in state as we could.”

Morgan said the same thing about his dispensary in Bustleton.

The clinic has a model unique to the state. It directly connects clients to doctors who are approved to prescribe cannabis treatments to patients.

“We take what can be a complicated process and make it simple,” Rousseau said.

The clinic will directly connect patients with three cannabis-certified doctors. Rousseau said acquiring a prescription could be difficult due to limited numbers of certified doctors. There are 117 certified physicians in the state, 25 of whom are located in Philadelphia.

The clinic walks patients through the process of obtaining medical marijuana. It is not a dispensary, which means it will not distribute the products directly.

Though cannabis clinics have been popping up around the country in states where medical marijuana has been legalized, Rousseau said Green Remedy was unique in also offering integrative care and nutrition therapy services.

There was initially some resistance to opening the clinic. Rousseau said finding a location was tough because landlords were apprehensive.

“Residents have been receptive and even excited that we’re here,” Rousseau said, noting that opinions became more positive once construction began.

As the loud cheers in Rhawnhurst Cafe and people like Borbidge prove, there are residents in favor of the practice of medical marijuana — though using the Northeast as an experiment may draw hesitation.

For people like Rudnitsky, though, it’s a cause worth rallying a crowd behind.

“I believe the medical program will be successful in the country,” Rousseau said. “I think over time through word of mouth and education and advocacy people will eventually start to turn around on the idea.” ••