Ann Arbor's home-grown pharmacy

By Kathleen Davis, Senior Arts Editor
Published January 28, 2015

Editors note: Due to the legal sensitivity of the topic, some names have been changed.

I pulled into the parking lot of People’s Choice of Ann Arbor on a gray and slushy afternoon, equal parts excited and nervous to step into a medical marijuana dispensary for the first time. A large purple wall greeted me in front of my windshield, featuring a large mural with the name of the establishment and the painted skyline of Ann Arbor. Sun-deprived from months with Michigan weather and kicking the snow from my boots, opening the door to the dispensary provided a sensory explosion to contrast the dreariness of a January afternoon: walls painted in warm hues of orange, reggae playing softly on the waiting room speakers and that distinctive skunky smell.

Sarah, the manager of People’s Choice, greeted me promptly with a warm smile and a handshake, and gave me a tour of the store. We walked from the waiting room to the managerial office to the product room, where shelves of various marijuana strains sat behind a large glass cabinet filled with edibles (marijuana-infused food or candy products) and lined with pipes and bongs. The store in its entirety was modest-sized, but what it lacked in size, People’s Choice made up for coziness and comfort.

I was brought back to the private office where I was introduced to owner and president of People’s Choice, Daryl. Sarah and Daryl, both soft-spoken and easygoing, radiate a vibe that rides the threshold between humanitarian and business. They did not come into the medical cannabis business to find a legal way to help their friends get high, a stereotype enforced by years of dispensary raids on cop shows and Showtime’s addictively popular “Weeds.” In fact, that could not be farther from the truth. Both have personal histories of why they became acquainted and interested in the medicinal effects of marijuana due to watching loved ones suffer from the effects of debilitating diseases and the harsh prescription pills that come with it.

“When I started five years ago, I had a true reason to jump into this business and try to help people who need it. My mother has MS (multiple sclerosis), and she tried different medications her whole life and nothing really worked,” Daryl said. “My cousin has RA (rheumatoid arthritis) very bad, and the first time I gave him medical cannabis he called me the next day and said, ‘Daryl, last night is the first time I slept through the night in three years.’ For that powerful of a statement to come out of someone’s mouth re-solidifies our purpose.”

Both Sarah and Daryl became involved in the medical cannabis industry in California when it became legalized in the state for medical purposes. Both Michigan natives, they returned after Michigan voters passed the Michigan Medical Marijuana Initiative, also known as Proposal 1, which allows patients suffering from debilitating conditions, inscribed as including cancer, multiple sclerosis and HIV, to use marijuana with a Medical Marijuana Card. The store itself has been around since July 2010.

Before her introduction to the medical cannabis industry, Sarah’s husband had been suffering from substantial back pain, and was trying to find alternative treatment options. It’s the understanding of marijuana as a medicine that drives the work at People’s Choice, and the passion of helping others that encompasses the attitudes of Daryl and Sarah. The two believe that the general public’s changing attitudes toward medical cannabis has been greatly positive.

“I would say that the general population has really turned a corner,” Daryl said. “When medical marijuana first came out, I think there were a lot of questions like, ‘Oh, is this really medicine?’ or, ‘Does this really work?’ or, ‘Are these people just hippies trying to find a reason to get high?’ But as time goes on, more and more medical evidence comes out, and people are opening their eyes and saying, ‘Wow, this is real medicine that is changing people’s lives daily.’”

And Daryl used science to back this up. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the active physiological compound naturally found in cannabis. This compound treats nausea in cancer patients and increases appetite, also called “the munchies.” CBD, or cannabidiol, is another active compound found in cannabis, which researchers say treats a wider range of disease than THC. Your brain does have cannabinoid receptors, which are associated with mood, appetite, pain sensation and memory. Your body, like many mammals, also produces cannabinoids naturally, which attach to these receptors. When a body ingests cannabis, the body can test positive for marijuana for around 30 days.

“When your body holds onto something for a month, like marijuana, it’s because it wants it. Your body has natural CBD receptors in it, pre-built in. When people understand this, they can understand cannabis as a medicine and understand how it helps people.”

Lloyd Johnston, a distinguished senior research scientist at the University’s Institute for Social Research, has studied the effects of drug use on young people for decades. While he does believe the pro-medical testimonials of those suffering from certain illnesses, Johnston is skeptical of laws increasing the availability of marijuana to the general public, as he still sees marijuana as a drug.

“The jury is still out on what all the consequences of marijuana are,” Johnston said. “We know it is very rarely lethal, but it does have the potential to create dependence, contrary to what was believed for some years. And there’s increasing evidence accumulating that it may interfere with brain development when used chronically in adolescence and early adulthood, when the brain is still developing.”

Johnston is not convinced that medical marijuana will become legal nationwide, and sees an increase of non-medical use of the drug as an extraneous result of legalization for medical purposes.

“I’m not at all sure that (legalizing medical marijuana) is likely to happen,” Johnston said. “Young people have come to see marijuana as considerably less dangerous in recent years, no doubt in part because of the medical marijuana and legalization debates, and their use of it has been rising.”

Daryl disagrees with Johnston’s prediction of nationwide legalization.

“There is not an inkling of doubt in my mind. About half on the Union is already in some stage of the medical level, so at some point the national government has to recognize that,” Daryl said. “I would say within the next three to five years we may see some sort of national marijuana policy change in favor of medical.”

Daryl cited a 2014 House of representatives decision to limit the Drug Enforcement Administration from pursuing medical marijuana use in legal states. With help from high-profile physicians, like University alum Sanjay Gupta, a staunch medical cannabis advocate, more people are being turned on to the idea that marijuana can be a medicine rather than a taboo.

“We see a lot of people who come in (to People’s Choice) for the first time and they feel the stigma, and are worried about what to expect,” Sarah said. “Once they realize that it’s no big deal, they can finally relax, and that attitude has definitely changed over the years as well.”

“You can go all the way from babies having seizures and give them a high CBD dose in medicine and their seizures will stop,” Daryl said. “You can look at an older person with serious chronic pain who has been on Vicodin for years and it’s tearing up their GI tract. When they switch over to medical cannabis they get away completely from the Vicodin, and their GI tract will start to heal itself, and they’re actually starting to feel better because they aren’t dealing with the bad side effects of the narcotics.”

“We see examples of this daily,” Sarah added. “We’ll have a Crohn’s disease patient feeling sick and as soon as they start medicating they gain 40 pounds and they’re finally feeling healthy again. There are just countless stories like that.”

“From the outside looking in, it’s hard to see these examples because you don’t see the pain coming from these people’s faces,” Daryl said. “People come in crying, or they leave crying because they’re so elated, they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, I finally feel normal and well, instead of high off these narcotics, off the Oxycotin and the Vicodin,’ and they can go back into their lives and function again.”

The business of a medical marijuana dispensary is, according to Sarah and Daryl, not much different than that of any other local pharmacy. People’s Choice is a firm supporter of buying locally, and all the product within the store is Michigan grown. The glass pieces sold are almost all from local artists, and the pair pride themselves on being a Michigan-based company.

“I’d say 90 percent of the operations are the same as any other business,” Daryl said. “You need to have a patient database, a record of everything they’ve purchased, so it’s looked at in mostly a pharmaceutical light, which it should be. If it’s medicine, you need to treat it as such.”

People’s Choice relies on the help of volunteers for secretarial functions and has a small paid staff, all of whom are required to hold Medical Marijuana Cards of their own, and well as to be licensed Medical Marijuana Caregivers.

“I’d say the volunteers who are drawn to this are somewhat humanitarian, in the sense that they see there’s a need for their help,” Daryl said. “And they’re willing to risk a little, if you will.”

The risk Daryl referred to was exemplified by an unexpected DEA raid on People’s Choice in August 2013. The event was traumatizing for the workers of the dispensary, but the owners fought and won their case against the federal agents, as there was nothing incriminating or illegal at the scene.

“The people working (at People’s Choice) at that time were here because they were willing to put themselves on the line in order to get people the medicine they need,” Daryl said.

As I finished my interview with Sarah and Daryl, I was filled with a sense of humanitarianism I did not expect from my experience at the dispensary. Walking back through the hallway I first came from, mentally saying goodbye to the calming reggae and the poster of Bob Marley on the wall, I had nearly forgotten how gray and cold the world outside was.