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As Dr. Gina Berman’s three children see it, their mom used to go to a hospital to treat patients and now she does it in a different setting. The emergency-room physician said she still deliberates over how she may explain her entrepreneurial path to the medical-marijuana industry as her kids, ages 9, 8 and 6, get older and public perception of medical cannabis evolves along with legislation. But what is certain is her plan to educate them – and everyone she can reach – about the alternative treatment’s benefits and dispelling myths that cloud its use and users.

“We’re not here to judge our patients. If a patient chooses to pursue any kind of treatment with their physician, who is it for neighbors to judge? It’s a double standard … I used to prescribe Percocet for pain every day. They need to know that’s the same,’” said Berman, co-owner of the Giving Tree Wellness Center, a licensed medical-marijuana dispensary founded in 2013.

A focus on alternative healing

Giving Tree offers medical-grade marijuana products including edibles, hash, oils and concentrates. The shop carries 15 different strains and the concentrate is made in-house. Edibles are brought in from other producers.

Berman, a California native, founded the dispensary with friend Lilach Power, who served in the Israeli Defense Forces in her native Israel before spending 15 years in the restaurant industry. At first, they served 10 patients a day from a single Phoenix location, Power said. Two months later, they opened their second location in Mesa.

Growth came quickly. In 2014, Giving Tree saw an average of 85 patients a day, Power said. Currently, that number is 120 a day, with nearly 100,000 patients walking through their doors each year – more than triple the number in their first year.

The Phoenix facility encompasses 55,000 square feet and offers alternative healing therapies, like yoga and naturopathic medicine.

Berman, 41, is the facility’s medical director and oversees inventory and compliance. Power, 37, focuses on growth, marketing and other business areas.

‘Doing something we really believe in’

Like Berman, Power balances the demands of business ownership with being a mom to her children, ages 6 and 2. Between carpooling, making lunches and keeping track of grades and homework, the women have found success in a young industry packed with both potential and controversy.

Power’s older son has been to the dispensaries, she said. The parents of her kids’ friends have been OK with knowing about the business, as are parents of the kids with whom Berman’s children are friends. But not all of their colleagues can make the same claim.

Power talked about a fellow dispensary owner whose children stopped being invited to social gatherings and how parents refused to drop their children at her home for parties. Eventually, the woman had to move her kids to different schools.

When the women started collaborating on their business plan in 2010, the industry was different, Power said. A couple of years ago, Power would say she and Berman “own a wellness center” when asked what they did for a living. Today, she is happy and relieved that the times, and the law, have changed.

“Getting arrested was a real threat for doing something we really believed in,” Power said. “Now, the first thing we say is that we own a state-licensed cannabis facility. I’ve never been more proud of our patients and our team.”

No upselling, no sales-based incentives for employees and involvement with charity events have contributed to the overall quality of the business, Power explained. Organically grown plants, careful monitoring of other companies’ products and not cutting corners are also part of the formula. Berman works closely with their grower, who gave her the option of lowering the lights to decrease yields but increase quality. There was no doubt as to what she preferred.

“Our menu may be light or prices a little higher, but that’s because we don’t sacrifice that quality,” Berman said.

One-stop shop for different therapies

In the emergency room, Berman treated patients who were not finding relief with traditional medicine and had to rely on addictive drugs that were being legally prescribed. She started suggesting alternative therapies.

Berman worked with Power’s husband, also an ER doctor. They both had an entrepreneurial spirit and hit it off immediately. They thought about opening a clinic that provided a one-stop shop for patients seeking different therapies.

When Proposition 203, the Medical Marijuana Act, appeared on the radar in 2010, Berman and Power knew this would fit a subset of their future clients. When voters passed the measure to make Arizona the 15th state to legalize medical marijuana, their plan was officially in motion.

The law allows for patients with certain qualifying conditions, such as cancer, glaucoma, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s and other chronic illnesses, access to medical marijuana. Patients must receive a referral from a licensed physician and submit that along with an application to the Arizona Department of Health Services for approval.

Dispensary owners also must apply to the state for licenses, which are granted on a limited basis each year. The density of patients and existing dispensaries within a 10-mile radius are factors when determining allocation.

With the law, the state and Giving Tree are part of an industry that’s projected to generate $21.8 billion in total sales by 2020, according to marijuana industry investment and research firm ArcView Market Research.

Giving Tree’s patients are among the more than 1.2 million people who use medical marijuana for a variety of approved conditions, according to Medical Marijuana Inc., a public company that provides business solutions and partnerships to the medical-marijuana industry.

‘You see people change’

Some clients are referred to Giving Tree by their physicians. A number of them would not have considered it if it weren’t for their doctor’s advice or the support of their families.

Lisa Di Gerolamo falls into this category.

Chronic pain caused by fibromyalgia had plagued the Mesa hairstylist for more than 10 years. In that time, she was on at least 13 different prescriptions, including oxycodone, sedatives and anti-depression pills, all in an effort to alleviate her pain and/or equalize the side effects of each other.

Di Gerolamo needed an electric wheelchair to get around. Her physical limitations combined with the medication caused her weight to balloon to 203 pounds. She was desperate for relief.

Di Gerolamo got emotional when recalling how support from her daughter and husband, convinced her it was OK to give medical marijuana a shot. At nearly 50, she tried marijuana for the first time a few years ago after a search of dispensaries led her to Giving Tree.

“The staff was friendly as soon as you enter the building. They are always helping me find the right strain, educating me on the different ways of medicating to take away the pain safely without getting high,” she said.

Today, Di Gerolamo doesn’t need a wheelchair, goes to the gym and is down to 140 pounds. She is able to work again. Except for one thyroid medication, she no longer takes any of her old prescriptions. She talks excitedly about being able to sit through a movie, take a walk with her family and no longer being ashamed of her physical condition.

Di Gerolamo credits the positive health changes to medical marijuana and Giving Tree’s guidance.

“The person you see on the outside isn’t the person you’d think would be on marijuana. I was that person (who said), ‘It’s a gateway drug,’ and ‘You just want to get high,’ ” she said. “But now, when I go in and see some really sick people with debilitating conditions, I have seen what it’s done for them and what it’s doing for me.”

For Berman and Power, these transformations underscore the very personal role their business plays in their clients’ lives.

“It’s about seeing patients who gave up, are in pain or can’t be part of society and being able to find a good solution for them. You see people change,” Power said.

It also gives Berman more one-on-one time with patients than she had in her former position.

“I love being an ER doctor. But this allows me to spend time with patients that need guidance that I wasn’t allowed to do before,” she said. “If nothing else, I can be their cheerleader, and that’s OK too.”

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker 420 MAGAZINE ®
Full Article: At Phoenix-Area Giving Tree Medical Marijuana Dispensaries, The Focus Is On Health, Hope
Author: Georgann Yara
Contact: 602-444-8000
Photo Credit: Nick Oza
Website: The Arizona Republic