BETHEL — When you turn on to Garella Road, the second building you see appears to be an ordinary home.
It has beige shingles, a nondescript white door and the prototypical suburban lawn common in the residential Stony Hill neighborhood a stone’s throw from Interstate 84.
But two of its windows are barred on the inside to shield it from the inevitable threat of burglars.
Inside are all the makings of a home: a kitchen, a bedroom and a living room.
But in the kitchen, there’s no food. The bedroom has a massage table instead of a bed.
And the living room has been converted into what looks like the waiting room of a doctor’s office, decorated with X-ray photos of marijuana plants and a sign that reads, “Every little thing is going to be alright.”
It’s the Compassionate Care Center of Connecticut, Fairfield County’s first — and only — medical marijuana dispensary. After months of arduous and sometimes angry debate, the Bethel dispensary will open its doors for business Tuesday.
“I feel like screaming,” said co-owner Angela D’Amico. “We just can’t wait to open our doors to the patients. We just can’t wait.”
But Thursday, when the Hearst Connecticut Media Group was given a tour of the two-story facility, there was one problem: No pot.
The first shipment has been delayed several days, but D’Amico and co-owner Karen Barski, both Trumbull residents, expect it to arrive by Monday.
It had better, because they have more than 200 appointments already booked.
When the marijuana does arrive, D’Amico and Barski will have six different strains, all grown at one of the state’s four licensed growing facilities and delivered by armored car. Marc Gare, one of the licensed growers, said the marijuana goes through a comprehensive testing process to rid it of any heavy metals or pesticides.
“None of the strain names are like those of street names,” Gare said. “We’re essentially a pharmaceutical company making clean medicine.”
Customers, or patients, as Barski refers to them, must have state-issued cards authorizing them to use medical marijuana; otherwise they don’t get past the center’s full-time security guard, Barski’s husband, whose name is — wait for it — Stash.
Each customer will first meet with the company pharmacist to decide which strain is right for him or her. Cardholders are allowed a state maximum of 2 1/2 ounces a month, distributed in packages of 5, 10, 15 and 35 grams. The strain types and costs have yet to be determined.
But Barski said marijuana is just one element of what she calls a “holistic” business. Upstairs, where the bedroom would be, will be an area for massages. Barski, 42, said she is also finalizing plans to offer Pilates, yoga and reiki, all of which she is certified to teach.
The goal is to help those suffering from one of the 11 debilitating medical conditions approved by the state Department of Consumer Protection for treatment with medical marijuana. The 11 conditions include cancer, Crohn’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Angela Fiorini, the center’s secretary, is also a patient. She treated B-cell lymphoma with medical marijuana, which helped alleviate nausea and loss of appetite during chemotherapy.
“Nothing doctors gave me would relieve my symptoms,” said Fiorini, 52, of Monroe. “But this has brought me tremendous benefits. I call it miracle marijuana.”
D’Amico got interested in medical marijuana when her son, a medical student at UCLA, put together a 35-page report on its benefits in treating Alzheimer’s patients. D’Amico, who has seven relatives who have suffered from the disease, said her reaction after reading the paper was visceral.
“I said, `When they decriminalize marijuana in this state, I’m going to open up the first marijuana facility,'” D’Amico recalled.
Connecticut did so in June 2011, and approved the sale of medical marijuana in May 2012. D’Amico stayed true to her word. She teamed up with Barski, a registered nurse whose daughter was dating D’Amico’s son. They formed D&B Wellness and began preparing their application in November 2013, as did 27 other prospective dispensary owners vying for six state-issued licenses from Department of Consumer Protection Commissioner William Rubenstein.
“We have a very lengthy set of regulations,” Rubenstein said during the Bethel facility’s open house Friday night. “It includes everything from their business plan to how they will give back to community to how they will manage their finances.”
The first five licenses went quickly in April to owners in Branford, Uncasville, Hartford, Bristol and South Windsor.
The last went to D&B Wellness, whose original application envisioned a dispensary in Bridgeport.
The company secured its business license and was poised to appear before the city’s planning and zoning commission when a pizza shop on the same street was held up at gunpoint for $100. The commission eventually rejected D&B’s application, but by that time, D’Amico was convinced the business would be a target in a neighborhood with a high crime rate.
“God was watching over us for not letting us into Bridgeport,” D’Amico said.
The license was to expire after 30 days, so D’Amico and Barski had to find a new location quickly. Stratford, which was their first choice, had imposed a 12-month moratorium on medical marijuana facilities. In Redding, space above a barbecue restaurant had become available, but discrepancies in D&B’s application did not sit well with the town’s zoning commission.
Finally, one week before their state license was to expire, D’Amico and Barski turned to Bethel.
Town Planner Steve Palmer approved their application as a commercial property for the house at 4 Garella Road in May, sparking outrage from some residents, many of whom expressed their anger at zoning board meetings throughout the summer. Two people tried and failed to overturn the zoning approval.
Now, with roots planted firmly in Bethel, the Compassionate Care Center of Connecticut hopes to become a part of the community. D’Amico and Barski plan to speak at local schools about the benefits of medical marijuana for those with debilitating diseases.
But longtime Bethel resident Geraldine Mills, who herself is battling cancer, is not pleased the dispensary has become a reality.
“I think the town was really just looking for tax dollars,” said Mills, 83. “But it’s here in Bethel and we will live with it.”
First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker, although not directly involved in the approval process, said his main concern was easing the worries of residents opposed to the business.
“I believe there will be no negative ramifications,” Knickerbocker said. “I think a year from now we’ll say, `This is a well-run business.'”
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