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Marijuana extracts “can change your life”

A local medical-marijuana dispensary made the difference for a local resident with achalasia

Manager Jaimee Lilley in front of the Crystal Spring Healing Alternatives medical marijuana dispensary on Main Street in Lewiston. Using cannabis extracts helped Lilley to overcome a major problem with achalasia, a tightening of muscles in her esophagus that prevented food and water from entering her stomach. (Tsukroff photo)

By Nathan Tsukroff

LEWISTON – Medical marijuana extracts – cannabinoids – “can change your life”, said Jaimee Lilley, the manager of the Crystal Spring Healing Alternatives dispensary on Main Street in Lewiston.

As a 16-year-old, Jaimee Lilley had trouble swallowing food and water. Dealing with the pain and surrounding issues led to lost classes in school, and even the loss of jobs.

She was diagnosed with achalasia, a tightening of the muscles in her esophagus, where her throat connects to her stomach. Treatment includes using a device to force the muscles to expand, surgery, or injection with botulinum toxin to relax the muscles.

Multiple surgeries and procedures provided only temporary relief, and she was prescribed several different drugs to try to relieve the symptoms and pain. “When I was first diagnosed, I was going in and out of surgeries all the time,” with five to 15 procedures a year, she said.

Growing up, she was adamantly anti-cannabis. “If I knew that you talked to Joe Blow, and Joe Blow smoked, I wouldn’t associate with you.”

Finally, in college, “I figured, the surgeries aren’t helping, the tests aren’t helping, the painkillers aren’t doing anything but make me feel worse, so what’s the worst that’s going to happen? So I tried smoking pot (marijuana).” And her world changed.

With the effects of the marijuana, she “still wasn’t able to eat perfectly, but I could tell the pain was a lot better.” She didn’t understand why she saw improvement, but knew the marijuana was helping. She qualified for a medical marijuana card and started purchasing cannabis extracts, cannabinoids, at dispensaries near her home in the Lewiston-Auburn area.

This led her to the Crystal Spring Healing Alternatives store at it’s former location in Auburn, where she met co-owner Sam Scalia. “He was the first person to stop and take time to explain to me why this is helping, and how it’s helping, and if I did X, Y, and Z, it could be even better,” Lilley said. “And it has been seven years since I’ve had any surgeries, or any tests, or any procedure. I don’t even see my GI (gastro-intestinal) team any more!”

“It’s remarkable! Granted, my health started changing before I came here, but I actually give all my gratitude to Sam here, because if it wasn’t for him explaining why it’s helping . . .  I would not be where I am right now,” she said.

Cannabis extracts have been proven extremely helpful with cancer patients to combat nausea and encourage eating. Cannabinoids are also shown to be effective for treatment of anxiety, depression, and PTSD, with minimal side effects that can experienced when using pharmaceuticals.

Lilley has a culinary degree from college and was hired as a chef for Crystal Spring to prepare the “edibles” – food with cannabis extracts mixed in. She worked her way up to become the manager of the current dispensary that opened about a year ago as Crystal Spring moved to Lewiston. Crystal Spring uses distillated extracts in its edibles to control the levels of cannabinoids in the finished product, then has the edibles tested by an outside lab to ensure consistency. 

The dispensary has a grow facility in Lisbon and is working on renovations to open a storefront there later this year.

Crystal Spring is owned by Scalia along with his father, Mike, and a friend, Gary Caron.

Patients who wish to obtain a card to purchase medical marijuana extracts are vetted by a nurse practitioner to determine their level of need, Lilley said. Maine law has changed over the years, and patients no longer need to prove they have qualifying conditions, she said.

The most well-known cannabinoids are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The extracts bring about therapeutic and healing effects when absorbed into our bodies to interact with the human endocannabinoid system, which regulates immune functions, mood, pain response, inflammation, anxiety and sleep.

There are about 144 different cannabinoids that are extracted from cannabis plants, with different plants providing different levels of the extract. Hemp provides large quantities of CBD but almost no THC, the cannabinoid which generally causes the hallucinatory effect experienced by marijuana smokers.

 Cannabinoids are metabolized in the liver when eaten, injected, or applied to the skin in creams or a dermal patch. This provides a long-term effect that make take from about 20 to 90 minutes to be felt, but can last for upwards of six hours. Smoking or vaporizing brings almost immediate results as the chemicals are absorbed through lung tissue, but the effects are short-lived, Lilley explained.

Many of the cancer patients that Lilley sees in the dispensary combine smoking with edibles for a combination of immediate and long-term relief from the pain and nausea of their treatment, she said.

Recreational sales of cannabis extracts will be allowed in Maine starting in October, but Crystal Spring plans to remain a medical dispensary. Creating edibles with consistent levels of extracts is important for their patients, and a medical dispensary is better qualified to provide that consistency, Lilley said.

Recreational marijuana products will be taxed at a higher rate than medical marijuana, Lilley said. Currently, sales of edibles are taxed at the 8% food sales tax rate and other extracts at the 5.5% sales tax rate. Recreational marijuana sales will see a 10% sales tax, plus excise taxes of $355 per pound of flower, $94 per pound of trim, $1.50 per seedling and $0.35 per seed. The excise and sales tax are specifically exempted for medical facilities and registered primary caregivers.

Lilley said she expects to see higher prices overall for recreational products.

“A lot of people have a preconceived idea of what cannabis is, or what dispensaries are all about, when in reality, sometimes it’s the exact opposite of what people are thinking,” she said. “We’re not just here for a good time. We’re not just here to make a quick buck. We’re here to help people.”

Crystal Spring is building a commercial kitchen at part of its storefront in Lisbon, to replace the cramped kitchen in Lewiston. The dispensary also has a lab that makes distillates from cannabis plants. The new kitchen will have more storage and will allow Crystal Spring to accommodate large special orders and to “pop out a lot more edibles than we have been doing,” Lilley said.

Besides the owners, the current chef, and Lilley, the dispensary employs four “budtenders” who sell products to patients, interacting with them to learn about issues that can be addressed with various products sold by the dispensary, Lilley said. “We get that similar aspect that bartenders do . . . that hair stylists do, with that whole connection process. And it helps to form a relationship with our customers,” to guide them toward helpful products.

The dispensary installed tall Plexiglas shields at the counter to provide proper a safety barrier between budtenders and patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are no plans for expansion in the foreseeable future, beyond the new storefront in Lisbon, she said.

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