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Medical marijuana dispensary celebrates national 420 Day


John Devito made the trek from Warrington to Sellersville on a chilly, rainy Saturday morning just to say thanks.

Last October, Devito’s 85-year old mother, suffering from cancer and osteoporosis, could barely lift herself out of a chair. But a month after being approved for a medical marijuana card and following a regimen prescribed with the staff at TerraVida in Sellersville, she was back on her feet.

“I saw what it did for her,” said Devito. “It really helped her.”

Devito was among more than 1,000 people who stopped by Terra Vida, a medical marijuana dispensary located on Main Street in Sellersville, to celebrate 420 Day, the national celebration of cannabis. In addition to product specials, Terra Vida offered live music, hot dogs and burgers to visitors.

As one of the bands set up its equipment to play, TerraVida CEO Chris Visco reflected on the whirlwind that has been her first 14 months in business. With three locations in the Delaware Valley – the others are in Malvern and Abington – TerraVida’s growth since it first opened in February 2018 has been astounding. Each dispensary is open 12 hours a day, including Sundays. Staff has grown from 22 to 110 to meet the demands.

Each dispensary serves about 300 patients a day, accounting for nearly 30 percent of all sales throughout the state, according to Visco.

“It has far exceeded our expectations,” she said as a light drizzle fell. Inside TerraVida, which is off limits without a medical marijuana card, dozens of patients waited for consultations or to have their prescriptions refilled.

Many of them are people suffering from chronic pain due to illness or injury looking for a safer alternative than opioids, she says.

Despite the overwhelming response so far, however, Visco says the company has only scratched the surface. Few people know that they can qualify for medical marijuna to treat chronic pain of fibromyalgia or arthritis, she says.

“Not enough people know about it,” says Visco. “There’s not enough education.”

Which is why Terra Vida is active in the communities it serves, with staffers often working in homeless shelters and food banks, organizing turkey drives around the holidays and participating in events such as fundraising walks for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, says Visco. It’s not so much about promoting Terra Vida as it is letting people know about the resources that are available to them since the state legislature approved the use of medical marijuana in 2016, she says.

Here is how the medical marijuana system works in Pennsylvania: Nearly 1,000 physicians who are registered with the state Department of Health can recommend treatment for nearly two dozen medical conditions, including autism, cancer and chronic pain. Patients with a recommendation can then register with the state to receive a medical marijuana card.

At Terra Vida, counselors meet individually with patients to suggest the appropriate products to treat the condition with cannabis-based products in capsules, liquids, oil or lotions, plus some forms of vaporization or nebulization.

Since medical marijuana is not covered by insurance, patients can expect to pay up to about $75 for a one-month supply.

Getting rid of the stigma associated with medical marijuana is also a goal. Visco bristled recently when someone in the industry suggested that nearly half the patients who use medical marujiana are doing it just to get high.

“It’s not true,” she says. “The average patient in Pennsylvania is 58 years old. We have one who is 97. Walk through our waiting room and you’ll trip over walkers. People here are sick.”

Despite the unexpected patient demand, TerraVida can’t turn a profit due to onerous federal tax rules, says Visco. She hopes the industry can lobby Congress to change the law, which results in an effective 70 percent tax rate, she says.

But none of that really matters to people like Devito, who saw his monther’s health improve dramatically once she started using the patches and creams recommended by the TerraVida staff.

“I just wish it could have been available to her sooner,” he says.