MORGANTOWN — Forty-one-year-old Sabrina Howland drove almost three hours Friday so she could ease her constant pain.
Howland, who developed neuropathy in her feet and toes about six years ago, drove 183 miles from Hurricane in Putnam County to Sabraton in Monongalia County to purchase medical cannabis from the first dispensary to open in the Mountain State since the state’s medical cannabis law went into effect in July 2018.
Howland was one of about 200 people who showed up Friday at 1397 Earl Core Rd. to buy medical cannabis from Trulieve Cannabis Corp., which has a license to open 10 dispensaries in West Virginia. The Florida-grown company, which is on track to post between $815-850 million in revenue in 2021, operates in 11 states.
“I decided to come up here because it’s legal now,” Howland said. “It will help me. I need it.”
Howland was originally prescribed the anticonvulsant drug gabapentin to lessen the spikes of pain she experiences in her feet and toes. The side effects became so bad that she had to quit work because she can’t drive due to the pain.
“Gabapentin is OK, but once you take it three times a day, it makes you go to sleep,” Howland said.
After months of the side effects from gabapentin, Howland asked her doctor if she believed medical cannabis would work better than the anti-seizure drug.
“She said, whenever it becomes legal it would be a great thing,” said Howland, who has the distinction of being the third person in West Virginia to receive a medical cannabis patient card.
Housed in a former physician’s office in a strip mall, the interior of the dispensary is a welcoming atmosphere that is part showroom, part doctor’s office. Trulieve will open its second West Virginia location on Monday in Weston.
“We grow one patient at a time through authentic and reciprocal relationships,” Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers told the guests at Friday’s grand opening and ribbon cutting. “We’re on a mission to make sure this is a normalized part of our health care routine.”
A former mergers and acquisitions attorney from Jacksonville, Florida, Rivers, helped write Trulieve’s incorporation papers in the Sunshine State in 2018 and has served as the company’s CEO since. The company started with 10 employees and has grown to a work force of 8,000.
“I was approached and asked to join the team and saw the opportunity,” Rivers said. “We spent a long time researching and a couple of things became very apparent. Number one, that there wasn’t really a company at the time that was really taking a customer or patient-centered approach.
“Second, in the state of Florida, we had a real opportunity to see if we could build a company that actually provided true access across an entire market. So, that’s what we set out to do.”
With the gusto of a cheerleader and the pace of a skilled emcee, Rivers shouted to the crowd and asked if they are going to choose Trulieve to be their medical cannabis dispensary of choice.
“We are a company that is dedicated to access and putting patients first,” she said to the crowd.
Many states that have passed medical cannabis bills have been criticized for dragging their feet in bringing their laws to life. Some states looked at the proliferation of cannabis shops in such high-profile states as California and cringed at the idea of having a dispensary on every corner in some cities.
“I think that every state has to go through their own process … and what works for one state isn’t necessarily going to work for another,” Rivers said. “And, we’re certainly happy that we have the ability to be here and I think that with the way that the law was originally crafted, you have a good mix of companies.”
In the early stages of approving licenses, medical cannabis received some pushback from the Monongalia County Board of Health that caused friction with the Monongalia County Commission. In total, 14 medical cannabis dispensaries have been licensed in Monongalia County.
“We ultimately had to do some regulation as far as overturning a regulation the health department attempted to put into effect that would have restricted some of these locations, but we all got through that and we’re just happy to see it moving forward and finally opening up,” Monongalia County Commissioner Jeff Arnett said at the event.
Meanwhile, Rivers and Trulieve are constantly working to expand access to medical cannabis and have their own lobbyists who work with legislators in each of the states in which they do business. She also serves as second vice chair for The National Cannabis Roundtable, which is made up of large and small industry companies to fight for cannabis reform on the federal level.
“As the CEO, one of my primary responsibilities is to grow careers for folks, and so you can’t do that if you’re worrying about how you’re going to make payroll and that’s certainly not the position that I’d like to be in,” Rivers said. “We do ensure that when we are not only making top line, we’re also making profitable growth that we can continue to reinvest into the company, so we can continue to open dispensaries exactly like we’re doing here today.”
The company is also accepting applicants for its West Virginia dispensaries for positions that pay between $15 and $20 per hour, River said.
Helping patients lessen their pain remains a constant driver for Rivers. Monongalia County Commissioner Tom Bloom said Friday’s ribbon cutting was all about helping people improve their quality of life.
“We fought to have this established in our community and this is the way I look at it is, it’s another alternative for pain management, which doesn’t involve opioids,” Bloom said. “My mom died of cancer and I only wish I had this alternative for her.”
Trulieve will host a ribbon cutting ceremony Nov. 15 for its Weston dispensary at 10 a.m. at 137 Staunton Dr.