PORTLAND, Maine — Operators of Portland’s first medical marijuana dispensary announced Wednesday they quietly have begun serving patients at the new 685 Congress St. location.

The 6,500-square-foot facility is one of four dispensaries opened or slated to open this year by Wellness Connection of Maine under the provisions of a 2009 state law allowing eight medical marijuana distribution sites across Maine. Wellness Connection of Maine already opened or has permits for dispensaries in Thomaston, Hallowell and Brewer.

Rebecca DeKeuster, executive director of Wellness Connection of Maine, said her organization is opting for a low-key opening at its Portland facility, saying in a statement that no grand opening is planned and that an open house for community leaders and “educational events” are scheduled for later in the year.

In contrast, the group held a higher profile preopening open house at its 2,400-square-foot Hallowell site in January. DeKeuster said the organization is holding off on making a bigger splash in Portland until the interior work on the building is complete.

“We’re not fully built out yet [in Portland] and the space, it’s gorgeous, but we’re not quite there,” DeKeuster told the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday.

The proposed Portland location came under fire in late 2011 when Maine Medical Use of Marijuana Program Manager John Thiele expressed concerns about the facility’s planned “vapor lounge,” where patients could sit and breathe in marijuana-based medicinal compounds while avoiding the respiratory and carcinogenic risks associated with smoking.

Wellness Connection of Maine, which previously did business as Northeast Patients Group, dropped plans for the vapor lounge in response to Thiele’s concerns the room would become a hangout.

The facility has opened with a dispensary, rooms for services such as acupuncture and counseling, administrative offices, a library and community room for the aforementioned educational events. Renovations to the Congress Street structure, located behind Local 188 restaurant, cost the group more than $150,000, Wellness Connection stated.

In a statement released by Wellness Connection of Maine, Portland dispensary manager Diane Schinella said she expects the location to serve more than 100 patients in its first few months of operation, with plans to hire as many as eight employees there within the first six months.

Only qualified patients are allowed to enter the dispensaries, which are state regulated and permitted. Patients can seek doctors’ prescriptions of marijuana to help ease the pain of chronic illnesses.

DeKeuster said Wednesday the organization initially is just seeing new patients at the site who prescheduled intake appointments and hopes to open up for drop-ins on Monday.

“Some people are new to the location, and some are new to the medicine,” she said. “We’ve had a waiting list, people calling ahead and making sure they’ve had appointments set up.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.