High hopes, some concerns as medical marijuana dispensary opens in Squirrel Hill
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Medical marijuanaResidents have mixed response to Squirrel Hill dispensary

High hopes, some concerns as medical marijuana dispensary opens in Squirrel Hill

Some people are looking toward the dispensary for pain relief and guidance while others worry about addiction, side effects and legal constraints.

A display case features several items at Solevo Wellness in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
A display case features several items at Solevo Wellness in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

Arlene Glick has endured severe chronic back pain since 1995. She has had five cervical spine surgeries, eight cervical vertebrae fused and three lower back surgeries, but she continues to suffer and uses prescription opioids for relief.

But with the legalization of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania, and last week’s opening of the first dispensary in Allegheny County — Solevo Wellness — Glick, 76, is optimistic that she will finally get some help.

“I am hoping to get off opioids,” Glick said. “I have tried marijuana before and it helps. It’s a buffer.”

Glick has had no advice on how much marijuana to take, or what strength to use and is looking forward to “getting guidance on the dosage,” she said. “I’ve been using a vapor pen, and I don’t know if there are better ways to take it.”

Glick, who is one of about 100 patients who has been certified by Dr. Adam Rothschild as qualifying for medical marijuana in Pennsylvania, will have the opportunity for such consultation as early as this week at Solevo Wellness, located on Forward Avenue in Squirrel Hill.

Solevo Wellness’ stylish interior is designed to put customers at ease. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
The dispensary doesn’t look like a typical pharmacy. It is decorated in a soft color palette, with comfortable, stylish furniture in its large waiting room.

After showing credentials that they have been approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Health for medical marijuana use, customers at Solevo are asked to fill out a comprehensive health history, including a medication list, before meeting with a pharmacist in a consulting room.

The pharmacist talks to the patient about what his or her goals are and makes general recommendations, including dosing and product suggestions.

“We want to keep people safe while achieving results,” said Solevo pharmacist Richard Greer.

The patient then enters into the dispensary area, where he is assisted in choosing and purchasing products. Patients are advised as to the various methods of ingestion as well as the specific qualities of the different products, including strength. Every dispensary employee is required to undergo the same mandatory state training as are the physicians who certify patients for medical marijuana use.

So far, more than 50 physicians in Allegheny County have been approved by the state to certify patients for medical marijuana use if they have one of 17 qualifying conditions, which include autism, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, Crohn’s disease, cancer, PTSD, inflammatory bowel disease and epilepsy.

I don’t expect it to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. It’s just one more tool.

Rothschild, Glick’s physician, completed a four-hour online training course to receive his state registration and has established a cash-based medical cannabis certification practice in East Liberty. Most of the patients Rothschild has certified suffer from chronic pain, PTSD, or neuropathy.

“Many of my patients are already self-medicating,” said Rothschild, who serves as the vice president of Shaare Torah Congregation.

Dr. Myles Zuckerman, who works at Family Hospice and Palliative Care, also has met the state’s requirements to certify patients for medical marijuana but has not yet issued any certifications; he is waiting for Family Hospice to issue a policy regarding medical marijuana before he does so.

In a hospice setting, Zuckerman said, medical marijuana can be used to alleviate symptoms such as pain, nausea and lack of appetite for people who have cancer. It can also be used by patients with Parkinson’s disease to treat pain.

While Zuckerman, a member of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, thinks that legalizing medical marijuana is “a good thing,” he does not see it as “a miracle medication.”

“I don’t expect it to be the greatest thing since sliced bread,” he said. “It’s just one more tool.”

“Lots of people think it will replace opioids,” Zuckerman continued. “It is safer in many ways.
But I don’t see it completely taking over that role in pain relief. There is a possibility of it helping patients, but I’m not rushing into it.”

It’s like a sharp knife. There are times when it is good and times when it is not good.

Like all other medications, Zuckerman pointed out, marijuana does have the potential to cause harmful effects, such as triggering psychotic reactions in people who have a history of psychiatric problems, or a family history of such problems.

Another problem with the drug, he said, is that using it is still a crime in the eyes of the federal government. That status creates obstacles, such as not being able to use the drug in hospitals and nursing homes that rely on Medicare and Medicaid payments from the government.

It is its illegal status on the federal level that disturbs some local residents.

“Right now, federal law says this is a schedule one narcotic, not medicine,” said Nathaniel Scholnicoff, a resident of Squirrel Hill and a member of Poale Zedeck Congregation. “If Congress changes the law, then it’s a different conversation.”

Scholnicoff, a chemical engineer who also has a degree in psychology with an emphasis on neuropsychology, pointed out that medical marijuana is not approved by the FDA.

“I have no faith at all in alternative medicine,” said Scholnicoff, who added that he has seen no scientific evidence confirming medical marijuana’s therapeutic effects. He is also concerned about addiction.

“There are all kinds of addictions,” he said. “There are physiological addictions and psychological addictions. You can have a psychological addiction to chocolate. Anything you associate with a pleasurable experience can lead to a psychological addiction.”

Another display case at Solevo Wellness in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
But for people like Jamie Forrest, a Squirrel Hill resident and member of Congregation Beth Shalom, medical marijuana has been more effective in relieving his chronic back pain and sciatica than “opioids, steroids, or NSAIDs, without any of the side effects of these,” he said.

The 41-year-old software engineer, who was certified for medical marijuana use by Rothschild, said that the drug “offers a good alternative for me. In addition, my doctor has identified stress as a possible exacerbating factor in my condition, and medical marijuana has powerful stress-relieving effects.”

Whether the legalization of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania will turn out to be a good or a bad thing for the community remains to be seen, said Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, executive director of the Aleph Institute, North East Region.

“I’m reminded of a close friend who passed away from Crohn’s, and it would have been a blessing to him to have medical marijuana,” Vogel said. “But there has to be oversight. We have to be careful.”

Addictions affect every community, he said, and caution with any drug is important.

“It’s like a sharp knife,” said Vogel. “There are times when it is good and times when it is not good.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at
ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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