Borough's first medical marijuana dispensary opens in Elmhurst
by Benjamin Fang
Jan 26, 2016 | 15042 views | 0 0 comments | 61 61 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Vireo Health of New York, the first medical marijuana dispensary in Queens, sits atop an AT&T store in an unassuming building.
Vireo Health of New York, the first medical marijuana dispensary in Queens, sits atop an AT&T store in an unassuming building.
Queens welcomed its first medical marijuana dispensary Friday in Elmhurst.

Vireo Health of New York at 89-55 Queens Boulevard is one of five licensed locations in New York State to give medical cannabis to patients. It's housed in an unassuming building atop an AT&T store across the street from Queens Center Mall.

Vireo Health’s CEO Ari Hoffnung is a former Queens resident and Queens College graduate. He said his ties to the borough made him proud to open a dispensary in Queens.

“We’re honored to be in the borough of Queens,” Hoffnung said in a phone interview. “It marks the first time in nearly 100 years that medical cannabis is sold legally in the borough.”

Qualified patients use medical marijuana to relieve pain associated with cancer, HIV/AIDS and epilepsy, Hoffnung said. He said research shows that cannabis actually works.

“There is a tremendous amount of research that demonstrates that medical cannabis is helpful to patients going through chemotherapy, mitigating effects like nausea, loss of appetite and pain,” he said.

Unlike much of recreational marijuana, medicinal cannabis isn’t smoked. It comes in capsules, oils and vape, much like the technology used in e-cigarettes. Hoffnung made it abundantly clear that Vireo Health is not a company that offers its marijuana for recreational uses. Instead, he maintained that it will be used for strictly medical purposes.

“We will not be selling any joints, pot brownies or have any products with names some regard as offensive,” Hoffnung said. “Instead of ‘budtenders’ with little to no background in medicine serving in our dispensary, patients will be served by highly trained and licensed pharmacists.”

Vireo Health’s home base is in Minnesota, where the process for a company to obtain a license is similar to the one in New York. Hoffnung said his colleagues in Minnesota were “extraordinarily helpful” in guiding the Queens branch.

Vireo Health has a facility in Perth, a small town north of Albany, where by law, the marijuana is grown in-state. From there, the company harvests the marijuana, dries it, infuses oils into the capsules and packages them.

The process to receive medical marijuana starts with patients consulting with their physicians. Only physicians who are certified can prescribe cannabis to their patients. Equipped with a certified physician’s recommendation, patients can then request a medical marijuana card from the state. Afterward, patients can visit a local dispensary to pick up the medical cannabis.

Hoffnung said that with multiple protections and security measures, he finds it “unlikely” and “virtually impossible” that anyone who is not part of the medical marijuana program can actually get their hands on the prescription cannabis.

“We have invested an extraordinary amount of financial and human resources to ensure that this facility is safe and secured at all times,” he said. “That includes security officers, it includes sophisticated surveillance equipment, and it includes state-of-the-art safes.”

He said the facility offers New Yorkers suffering from chronic pain a fundamentally different experience than what people have seen on television in other states that have legalized recreational marijuana.

Instead of marijuana paraphernalia or other pot-related symbols, Hoffnung said the building will “blend into the neighborhood.”

“We are operating a dispensary that very much has the feel of a high-end doctor’s office or pharmacy,” he said. “We want to make sure that the atmosphere is comfortable and welcoming for patients, but also an atmosphere that is professional in nature and medically focused.”
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