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A first look inside Riverhead’s medical marijuana dispensary


You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d walked into an Apple store when entering Riverhead’s medical marijuana dispensary, which opens this morning.

The Columbia Care facility on East Main Street — the only dispensary in Suffolk County — has been polished with a clean feel, with soft modern lights, isolated tables and bright curved countertops.

iPads will be provided on the tables for patients to look up the company’s marijuana products — liquid drops for under-the-tongue use, concentrate for vaporization and oral capsules.

Photos hanging on the walls show zoomed-in images of marijuana plants grown at Columbia Care’s production facility in upstate New York. A waiting area features tan chairs set around small wooden tables with a backlit Columbia Care logo built into the far wall.

Columbia Care CEO Nicholas Vita wants to dispel any myths: this isn’t a place for those “looking to have a good time.”

The medical marijuana facility is for patients with serious conditions like AIDS, cancer or Parkinson’s disease who are looking for treatment, he said.

“These are people who deserve a high quality of life,” Mr. Vita said. “Our mission is medical. People who come to our facility are looking to live lives and have a quality of life we take for granted.”

The waiting area inside the Columbia Care medical marijuana dispensary in Riverhead. (Credit: Paul Squire)
The waiting area inside the Columbia Care medical marijuana dispensary in Riverhead. (Credit: Paul Squire)

After months of debate in local government, the Columbia Care dispensary is opening Friday and already patients have made appointments.

Medical marijuana was approved by New York state legislators in 2014, with all 20 approved dispensaries opening across the state by the end of this month.

Columbia Care had first tried to build a dispensary on Route 58, but ran into resistance from some on the Riverhead Town Board and in the community, who said the facility was too close to schools. The Town Board had considered a moratorium on a dispensary, but eventually backed off and Columbia Care moved its location to East Main Street next to an oncologist’s office.

Mr. Vita said the company is grateful for the support of many in the community, like Peconic Bay Medical Center, other doctors and patients.

Having a location in Riverhead is ideal due to its central location on the end of major thoroughfares leading east and west, he added.

“Riverhead is not only kind of an economic hub and the county chair but this is an area where there are significant medical resources for health care professionals,” Mr. Vita said. “Being close to Peconic Bay … that’s huge.”

The Columbia Care dispensary isn’t like a normal pharmacy. Security is beefed up, with an electronic card verification system, surveillance cameras and multiple locked doors blocking non-patients from entering the building.IMG_7762

“The idea is to create a safe environment where people feel comfortable but not to create a fortress where a patient comes and feels like they’re under surveillance,” he said.

Only qualifying patients with a referral from a physician will be allowed entry. Mr. Vita stressed that no marijuana will be sold for recreational use.

The layout of the dispensary was important, he said. The waiting area tables are set up to allow patients to talk to one another, while the area near checkout — where patients can discuss their treatment options with pharmacy staff — are set up to provide privacy to those who want it.

“We try to encourage communication,” Mr. Vita said. “It’s not just communication with the pharmacists. It’s communication with each other.”

Inside the dispensing area, a state-licensed pharmacist will discuss product options with customers, Mr. Vita said.

Columbia Care will initially offer medical marijuana with high THC and CBN concentrations, which are different facets of the drug that help with various types of symptoms. More options will become available shortly, Mr. Vita said.

Columbia Care CEO Nicholas Vita said he hopes to erase the stigma around medical marijuana treatment. (Credit: Paul Squire)

“We like to think it opens up a new door of alternative treatment,” he said. “This is a natural product. We take that plant and we turn it into the medicine that patients come to buy.”

Mr. Vita said the company, which has dispensaries in locations like Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington D.C. and Arizona, wants to break the assumptions surrounding medical use of marijuana.

“It’s been around for thousands of years but there’s a stigma attached to it,” he said. “And that stigma has really resulted in an inability for patients to access that medicine.”

“What we really hope is patients will have better lives,” he continued. “They won’t be ashamed of using this alternative treatment. They’ll be proud of it.”

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