Medical marijuana patients come first at new Elyria dispensary, one of the largest in Ohio (2024)

ELYRIA, Ohio (WJW) — Operators of an upcoming cannabis dispensary in Elyria expect millions of customers will be lining up across the state once legal recreational marijuana sales begin.

As Ohio regulators steer toward the first-ever legal sales of marijuana for recreational use in the coming weeks, dispensaries that once catered only to medical marijuana users are now “phasing out of the patient care aspect,” said Roberta Rosa, general manager of Nirvana. But not at her store.

The folks readying the new dispensary at 914 Cleveland St. for a soft opening on Saturday, June 8, will first be selling only to medical cannabis patients, said Muhammad Warraich, operations manager — and the experience there caters to their needs.

Some of the 15 people now working at Nirvana are patient care technicians who answer questions about cannabis, helping customers find a product that has the right dosage and composition to meet their needs, said Rosa. The floor plan was big enough to include private consultation rooms, she said.

“We don’t want any patient a thousand dollars into the program not knowing their tolerance,” she said.

“We try to get the closest we can to hitting the nail on the head,” she said. That means finding which of the thousands of strains of cannabis — each with their own medicinal makeup — can best manage a patient’s symptoms, and nothing more.

“Every patient is a journey,” she said.

As of the end of April, there were more than 165,000 actively registered medical marijuana patients in Ohio, according to the Ohio Department of Commerce. Before voters approved Ohio’s citizen-led statute to allow recreational marijuana, there were more, Warraich said.

“We don’t want the patients to feel left behind. That’s the worst thing to hear,” said Rosa.

Some states require dispensaries to prioritize serving medical patients by keeping special hours just for them. Even if that doesn’t end up becoming a requirement in Ohio, Nirvana will look to create a “priority” waiting line just for medical patients, Warraich said.

Licensing for Ohio’s “dual-use” dispensaries, which will sell both recreational and medical cannabis, starts on Friday, June 7, and Warraich expects it’ll take a few weeks before they get the green light. Nirvana could open for recreational buyers closer to July, when they’ll plan “something special” for a grand opening, he said.

When recreational sales start in Ohio, Nirvana estimates 2 million to 3 million people will be getting in line across the state, Warraich said.

But Ohio’s medical patients will still have specific needs.

‘A good night’s sleep’

While serving in Afghanistan, Army infantryman Joe Hojnacki, a Lorain native who’s now Nirvana’s inventory manager, said he suffered a traumatic brain injury in an IED explosion. After being medically discharged in 2014, and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he moved back to Ohio and enrolled at Cuyahoga Community College.

His bi-weekly treatments through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs were supplemented by “a slew of different medications” — some worked, others didn’t. But overall, he didn’t like how he felt while taking them, he said.

His service buddies living in legal states like California and Colorado recommended he give cannabis a try. He said he became “infatuated” by researching cannabinoids, the compounds in cannabis that connect with and affect the human body’s systems, which can improve sleep quality and reduce the nightmares brought on by PTSD.

Hojnacki was one of the first people in Ohio to get a medical marijuana card when the program started in 2016, he said.

“I was astonished that since Afghanistan, I was able to get a good night’s sleep,” he said. “Waking up feeling normal was pretty amazing to me. … My personal experience is it turned my life around. I’m able to function, I’m able to enjoy my family in a way that I wasn’t happy with prior to cannabis.”

Of the 430,000 patients who have been recommended medical marijuana and registered since Ohio’s program began, nearly 25,000 of them were veterans, according to the commerce department.

Veterans enrolled as a medical marijuana patient in Ohio can even get a discount at state dispensaries — including Nirvana, which offers the maximum of 30% off — by submitting proof of their service to the state, like a DD214.

There’s been positive but limited research on whether cannabis can be used to treat psychological disorders like PTSD, according to a 2019 article published in the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience. Studies up until then were “low-quality” and too small in scale, the paper noted, citing restrictions due to cannabis’ federally illegal status.

“It is unfortunate that research pertaining to cannabis safety and efficacy for various illnesses has not kept pace with social reforms concerning its use,” reads the 2019 article. “As indicated in a recent headline, within the United States, ‘Legal weed is everywhere — unless you’re a scientist.’”

Veterans of Foreign Wars in 2021 reported on the first-ever FDA-regulated study on humans suggesting cannabis has potential in treating the symptoms of PTSD. Subjects in the year-long study reported lessening symptoms and were more than twice as likely to no longer meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis than whose who didn’t use cannabis.

But since cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, Veterans Affairs doesn’t recognize it as a treatment for veterans. So its clinicians won’t offer it, and instead will only recommend medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In 2023, Veterans Affairs recommended against cannabis as a treatment for PTSD, citing “anecdotal” evidence that it actually works, as well as its potential for misuse and dependency. Veterans, however, won’t be denied VA benefits because of cannabis use or for participating in state-led cannabis programs.

The agency also criticized a recent study for including subjects who were already using cannabis, but who said their symptoms subsided during the course of the study, “leading to a high risk of bias.”

Now that the federal government is moving to reschedule cannabis, it may open the door to new research.

‘The science of cannabis’

After graduating from Tri-C in 2017, then Baldwin Wallace in 2021, Hojnacki broke into the cannabis industry, working at local cultivators and dispensaries. He said he’s learned a lot since then.

There are hundreds of types of components called terpenes that can be found in cannabis plants, each with their own properties. You’ve also probably heard of at least two other components called cannabinoids: Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, produces an intoxicating high; Cannabidiol, or CBD, can reduce inflammation and anxiety and has been readily available since 2018, when federal restrictions on hemp products with low THC content were loosened.

There’s even one type, tetrahydrocannabivarin, or THCV, that research suggests can suppress appetite and increase metabolism, according to a letter published in the National Library of Medicine.

There are also hundreds upon hundreds of different strains, each with their own name, but they come from two main types of plants: cannabis sativa, which gives an energetic, heady high; and the more relaxing cannabis indica, which lets users “melt” into the couch, Hojnacki said.

For someone like himself, Hojnacki recommends a product with lower CBD but higher cannabigerol (which can ease pain and anxiety) and cannabinol (to help with sleep). Navigating that dizzying menu is where Nirvana’s patient care technicians come in, Hojnacki said.

“People are most familiar with THC and CBD, but there’s more to cannabis than that,” he said. “We can evaluate and analyze the patient based on their experience and knowledge and offer those recommendations, diving into the science of cannabis.”

One of the largest dispensaries in Ohio

The Elyria location is Nirvana’s first Ohio dispensary. At nearly 8,000 square feet, it’s one of the largest in the state. Nirvana also operates 30 other dispensaries in Michigan, Illinois, Arizona, Maryland and Missouri, according to its website.

The nearly half-acre Cleveland Street property used to be a Ponderosa restaurant. Most recently, it was a car dealership selling donated cars operated by the Catholic charity Our Lady of the Wayside, proceeds from which benefited adults with disabilities. Car donations were paused when the lot’s owner sold it, according to the charity’s website.

That means it’s sitting on a fairly large lot, so operators may consider adding curbside ordering, Warraich said. In April, Ohio’s Division of Cannabis Control was considering rules allowing for cannabis drive-thrus.

It’s owned by CREAM Apothecaries, which obtained a provisional dispensary license in 2021. A complete overhaul of the building started in 2022, Warraich said.

“The building was in pretty bad shape,” Warraich said. “About $2 million went into the building to get it to where it is now. It’s beautiful.”

Security was a priority. Dispensaries in Ohio are required to have a certain number of cameras, covering every inch of the interior — Nirvana has 52 — as well as a “mantrap” at each entryway. That’s a corridor with two locking doors, each of which must be closed before the other can open. Burglars who targeted another local dispensary years ago gave up when they reached those doors, said Hojnacki.

Brian Adams, assistant general manager, said he worked at a local dispensary that was burgled, but the criminals only made it to the front of the house. That’s why Nirvana doesn’t keep product on display for customers. The cannabis for sale passes from a locked backroom to the front counter through key-locked cabinets resembling safe deposit boxes one might see at a bank. At night, all the product is hidden away in a locked vault.

Sensors in the windows detect when they’re broken. A specially trained security guard patrols during open hours.

“Every possible measure is in place so they cannot get in and do anything,” Warraich said.

Medical marijuana patients come first at new Elyria dispensary, one of the largest in Ohio (2024)
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