Metro Weekly

Cannabliss: Accessing Medical Marijuana in DC

Herbal Alternatives makes sure every patient gets the right medical marijuana for what ails them

Photo courtesy of Herbal alternatives

Entering the office building that houses Herbal Alternatives, the first thing that strikes you is the amount of security needed to gain access to the medical marijuana dispensary.

First, you’re carded by building security officers, who will guide you upstairs — even pressing the elevator button. When you’ve reached your floor, you’re greeted by a white, sterile hallway with a plexiglass window. The atmosphere is cold, metallic. A sense of uncertainty hangs in the air as you are buzzed through two sets of imposing, heavy doors.

Once inside, the mood instantly changes. You enter a bright waiting room, furnished with a comfortable couch and pieces of brightly colored artwork lining the walls. Around the corner, long glass display cases showcase various products, including cartridges, oil syringes, and tinctures. Against the wall are bongs, bubblers and pipes, as well as cleaning accessories. Friendly staff members are on-hand, eager to assist.

The stark contrast between the outside and inside of Herbal Alternatives always throws off first-time patients, says managing member Jen Brunenkant.

“When people first get off the elevators, you can almost always tell who a first-time patient is, because they’re looking at the security doors, looking at the window, and they’re very unsure. When they come in through this door, they feel much better, because this space is very bright and there’s lots of light. You can see during the time they spend here that they start to relax, because one of the basic tenants is there’s no judgment of anybody. It doesn’t matter what their politics are. It doesn’t matter what they do. What matters here is that we’re here to help and that’s it.”

The friendly, personal approach is, according to Brunenkant, what sets Herbal Alternatives apart from the other four dispensaries currently operating in the District. That, and a detailed knowledge of the various strains and effects of marijuana, which helps staff best treat ailments.

“We probably have more of a medical focus,” says Brunenkant. “We concentrate on educating the patient as to what the composition of a plant is. You have a variety of cannabinoids, you have a variety of terpenes. Each of them has its own medicinal benefit. Different people react to different terpenes in different ways, so it’s a process — learning what type of flower or what type of product is an effective treatment for this specific individual’s condition.”

The business model at Herbal Alternatives is “deli-style.” Budtenders, who handle and dole out product, make recommendations from more than 84 strains of medicinal marijuana. They also assist patients by matching them with an appropriate delivery system. For example, if a patient doesn’t wish to smoke, they can vaporize it, apply topical creams or oils, or ingest it with tincture under the tongue or through edibles.

As a former patient, Joan Parrott-Fonseca knows the difference that a personal relationship can have on those accessing the service.

“I think here, we know our patients well. We know their families,” says the senior intern and spokeswoman for Herbal Alternatives. “What attracts them is that we’re not [simply] transactional. You come in and we talk to you. The transaction comes at the end, when they’re presented with the varied options.”

Parrott-Fonseca accessed Herbal Alternatives when she battled the debilitating effects of Still’s Disease, a rare form of rheumatoid arthritis that can be absolutely crippling.

“One day, I woke up, and my body wasn’t my body. [Doctors] put me on steroids and my face grew so big I was unrecognizable. The pain was unbelievable. I ate the bone above my front teeth,” she says. “I lived five blocks away. I could not walk. Now, I can walk back and forth comfortably, and I actually see the difference in what I’m ingesting and I feel a thousand times better. [People] look at me and they say, ‘Wow. You look great.’ And I want to say, ‘You should have seen me a year ago.'”

Brunenkant also has experience with marijuana helping overcome physical pain. Although she’s been involved in the industry for almost 30 years, Brunenkant was particularly influenced by an accident that left her temporarily unable to walk. As a result, she began relying heavily on pain medication.

“I woke up one morning realizing that I was waking up looking for the next pain pill,” she says. ” And I’m not particularly fond of addictions, so we developed kind of a pasty tincture topical that would help reduce the inflammation. From there, I learned to walk again.”

Not just anyone can just walk into Herbal Alternatives and start buying marijuana: Clients must first apply for a medical marijuana card, which requires a prescription from a doctor or other healthcare professional saying they need medical marijuana to treat their condition. They also need two separate forms of identification to have their application approved by the Department of Health. If they’re applying for financial assistance, they need to provide even more documentation.

“We actually assist in helping to facilitate,” says Parrott-Fonseca. “For example, if someone comes with an application, in certain other dispensaries, they tell you to go put your application in and they’re not involved until the person gets the card. We try to avoid their paperwork [being sent] back by reviewing it and saying, ‘Hey, this might not go through. You need to come up with something more substantial,’ like their proofs of residency.”

One of the barriers to access continues to be the reticence of doctors to prescribe medical marijuana. Luckily, research in the past decade is beginning to prove the health benefits associated with it — something that Brunenkant also notices, anecdotally, in the patients who come seeking help.

“Most physicians are used to going to their drug reference manual and saying, ‘Okay these are the symptoms that it treats, these are the possible interactions.’ And because they can’t do that with cannabis, physicians are wary of recommending it,” she says. “What we find is as their patients have gotten cards and they’re seeing improvements in the specific conditions of that patient, it opens up their mind to the possibility that cannabis is an effective alternative treatment.”

There are benefits to society, as well. States that have adopted medical marijuana programs have seen a 25 percent reduction in overdoses within the first two years of implementation. Over time, that number can increase to as much as a one-third reduction in drug overdoses. Statistics also show that there’s a reduction in fatal car accidents in states that have medical marijuana.

There’s concern that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions — an ardent opponent of marijuana, even for medicinal purposes — could crack down on jurisdictions where medical marijuana is legal. Brunenkant thinks such efforts would ultimately be futile.

“Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration would find it very difficult to walk back medical marijuana,” she says. “You’ve got 29 states plus the District of Columbia that are full of medical marijuana programs. You have another 12 or 13 that have CBD programs. That’s the majority of your states. And they’re not just Democratic states. Plus, you’re talking about an administration that consistently talks about the priority of state’s rights.”

Brunenkant is highly skeptical of recreational marijuana, even though it hasn’t affected her business. She alleges that the decriminalization of marijuana in D.C. has created a larger black market for weed. Her larger concern, however, is the safety of the product that people may ingest, even those that claim to be “Initiative 71-compliant.”

“It’s not tested. You don’t know how it’s grown. You don’t know what chemicals are added to that growth process,” she says. “Just because they tell you it’s Gorilla Glue Number Four doesn’t mean it is Gorilla Glue Number Four.

“For a while, some of the street product was being treated with roach killer, which intensifies the high. Well, it also is not particularly good for you. I find that concerning, because when you have people that have a compromised immune system, you want to make sure that the product they’re getting is pesticide-free, hormone-free, and naturally grown.”

Most of Herbal Alternatives’ clients stick with the dispensary once they obtain a medical marijuana card.

“They’ve stopped buying from the street because they can taste and feel the difference,” she says. “They can tell that they’re not getting congested, or headaches, or paranoid, or the stereotypical red eye. You don’t tend to get that from naturally grown products. They don’t have to worry about it.”

Personalized care may be one of the highlights that keep patients loyal to Herbal Alternatives, but the feeling is mutual: the bonds forged with clients keep the staff at the dispensary motivated and eager to return to work each day.

“I get a lump in my throat,” says Parrott-Fonseca. “It’s every day I can go home and know that somebody was helped today. The one thing we can always smile about is something good that happened to a patient that day.

“A lot of times I get emotional because I understand what they’re going through. Pain is such a daily weight on you. And when patients come through the door, they hug you,” she says. “I’m used to being a public servant, but I’m not used to people touching me. So it’s like, ‘Wow. This is big.’ Now I understand it, because I’ve been on the patient side, and when I came here, it was such a relief.”

For more information, call 202-618 5635 or visit herbalalternatives.net.

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com