It could pass for a bank or a suburban mortgage provider. But the new occupant of a former Wawa store in Northeast Philadelphia isn't about checking accounts or low-interest loans.
Under a simple sign reading "Liberty," the city's second medical marijuana dispensary opened to little fanfare on Monday following a $1 million renovation that has completely the erstwhile hoagie palace into a space that now resembles a fashionable spa.
"We're having a nice day and getting a steady flow of customers," said co-founder Keith Morgan, who also serves as the CEO of Krispy Kreme Philly and operates a marijuana growing and processing facility north of Pittsburgh. "We're pleased, excited, and encouraged."
The shop is the second Liberty store to open in the region. The chain opened a dispensary last week in West Norriton, near Norristown. Philadelphia's first marijuana retailer, Restore Integrative Wellness Center, opened in May in Fishtown.
The enthusiastic crowds that greeted the February openings of the region's first dispensaries did not appear at Liberty on Monday. There were no lines snaking out the door. Pharmacist Lou Giannotti, director of dispensary operations for the store's parent company Holistic Farms, explained the soft launch was "more of a traditional retail opening."
"At one point there were too many people enrolled [in the medical marijuana program] and not enough dispensaries," Giannotti said. "During the initial wave of openings, people were driving hours just to buy in Abington. There's now plenty of supply out there."
Since the state's medical marijuana program began, 51,244 patients have registered to become patients. Of those, 28,125 have received their medical marijuana cards and are eligible to buy the drug to treat nearly two dozen ailments. Since mid-February, 28 dispensaries have opened across the state.
Currently, patients can buy a variety of oil-based cannabis products. Flower, the better known smokable form of the plant, will begin to be sold in stores by mid- to late-August.
Giannotti said patients coming into the Bustleton shop reflected the neighborhood. "We've had a number of seniors, but the demographic has been a mix of people, the same you'd see in any other pharmacy."
Liberty's spa-like environment, like nearly all other marijuana shops operating in Pennsylvania, purposely distances itself from cannabis' past. There's nothing that remotely reeks of a 1970s headshop.
"Our store smells like a Gucci or an Apple store," said Josh Genderson, CEO of Holistic Farms and operator of nearly a dozen dispensaries in California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Washington, D.C. "There's a preconceived notion that you're walking into a place where everybody
just finished a joint before you walked in. That is not the case here.
"You won't find bongs or underground comics in a Liberty store. You will find highly curated devices for consuming and vaporizing cannabis, things like that."
New patients are greeted inside the dispensary by staff "wellness guides" who provide 40-minute consultations for those who have never used medical marijuana. After a conversation about the patient's ailment, the guide zeroes in on an appropriate cannabis strain for treatment.
The varietal Cannabis indica delivers a narcotic effect, Genderson said. "And they're very good for chronic pain. They're good for helping you sleep." Cannabis sativa "has a more cerebral effect," he said. "They're more for daytime use, more for people that are not looking for psychoactive effects — for people that are looking for more of a pick-me-up type of medicine. "
Medical marijuana remains expensive compared to black-market cannabis. Patients can expect to spend between $35 and $150 per visit, he said. Insurance does not cover the cost of marijuana medicines.
Illicit cannabis usually is only a phone call or Instagram message away. So why pay the premium to buy from a dispensary?
"We're really able to dial into what we're producing and give you something that is more potent, is more tasty, and is more beneficial to the ailment that you're looking to treat," Genderson said. "We're testing for molds and mildews. We're testing for what you're putting into your body."