Columbia Care's medical marijuana dispensary on East Main Street accepted its first 15 patients today. Photo: Courtney Blasl

When his mother’s debilitating rheumatoid arthritis began preventing her from performing everyday tasks, Nicholas Vita knew it was time to try something new.

Little did he know that the answer would not only transform his mother’s life, but those of the thousands of patients who have purchased medical marijuana through his healthcare company ever since.

“A family friend who also happened to be a physician suggested a topical balm for my mother — I didn’t even tell her it was marijuana at first,” he said, laughing. “I knew she wouldn’t have tried it. But, she did, and soon enough she was back in her garden, writing letters, all the things she loved doing before that she no longer could.”

Vita is now the chief executive officer of Columbia Care, the nation’s largest manufacturer and provider of medical marijuana – and the company that is opening a dispensary in Riverhead today.

Nicholas Vita, left, at a ribbon-cutting celebration today at the East Main Street dispensary. Photo: Courtney Blasl
Nicholas Vita, left, at a ribbon-cutting celebration today at the East Main Street dispensary. Photo: Courtney Blasl

Columbia Care was one of five companies awarded a New York State license to grow and sell medical marijuana, which is currently only available to patients with a select few conditions like cancer, AIDS and ALS (but not arthritis).

Each state license allows for one manufacturing facility – Columbia Care’s is in Rochester, New York – and four dispensaries to sell the product in non-smokable forms to prescribed patients.

2016_0129_medical_marijuana_1Columbia Care’s Riverhead dispensary will be the only one in Suffolk County, and it is one of just two on Long Island. “This is all about giving patients and physicians options,” Vita said. “We’re delighted to be here in Riverhead.”

Vita says he was attracted to Riverhead Town because it is centrally located for access to both the East End and the rest of Suffolk County. It is also already home to a wealth of doctors and the largest hospital on the East End. “Riverhead has a very strong medical presence,” he said.

The dispensary’s location speaks to that. It is in the same East Main Street complex as one of the largest oncology centers on Long Island, and is just two miles away from Peconic Bay Medical Center.

“The more access we have to patients and physicians, the more likely we’ll get a dialogue and get them to understand what we’re doing,” Vita said.

Understanding is a big part of the problem when it comes to the success of medical marijuana programs, Vita said. “Riverhead is a prime example of that,” he said.

After the dispensary was announced last August, it was the subject of months of heated controversy among town officials and residents. Originally proposed for the former Blockbuster location on Route 58, the site’s proximity to Riverhead High School drew protest from local residents and even led the town board to consider temporarily blocking a medical marijuana dispensary from opening in Riverhead altogether.

But Vita has worked with town officials and community leaders, including the executive director of Peconic Bay Medical Center, to find a new home for the dispensary on East Main Street.

The town board backed off its discussions of a moratorium, construction began on the site, and this Friday, Suffolk County’s first medical marijuana patients walked through the dispensary’s doors for the first time.

Columbia Care’s dispensary on East Main Street is sleek and modern, a deliberate design choice that Vita says reflects changing attitudes about the drug. Photo: Courtney Blasl

Vita hopes that the drug’s availability in New York will help people see the benefits it can provide – and stamp out some of the myths that still surround it.

“People have some misconceptions about medical marijuana,” he said. “They have a hard time separating the medical use from the recreational use.”

Medical marijuana can be used to provide relief to patients suffering from a wide variety of illnesses, though it is currently only available in New York to patients diagnosed with a select few conditions. And New York patients won’t be walking out of dispensaries with dime bags; it is currently only available in non-smokable forms, including vaporizable concentrates and sublingual tinctures.

Most importantly, Vita said, medical marijuana gives patients an alternative to addictive opiates while still maintaining effective pain relief.

At Columbia Care’s Washington DC dispensary, 60 percent of the patients being treated for neuropathic pain used to take opiates – highly addictive substances that officials now say are one of the leading factors in the nation’s burgeoning heroin crisis. Patients who become addicted to narcotics like morphine, oxycontin or vicodin will sometimes turn to street drugs for a similar high once their prescriptions run out.

Medical marijuana carries no such risks. It is not physically addictive, but it still provides pain relief.

“Our business is medical and serves chronically ill patients with serious illnesses,” Vita said. “There aren’t people lining up outside looking for a good time. That’s not what New York wanted, and that’s not what we want.”

Though the drug will not be stored at the dispensary in plant form, security is still a top priority for the facility, Vita said. An on-site security guard will be present during the dispensary’s hours of operation, and infrared security cameras throughout the facility will be monitored 24/7. The building also features automatically locking doors.

“Crime rates actually go down around our facilites because of the additonal cameras and activity,” Vita said.

Medical marijuana is currently available in New York State to patients with cancer, HIV/AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury with spasticity, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease, neuropathy and Huntington disease.

With 21 dispensaries across the country, Vita has spoken to many of the patients he has served, and he says he is constantly inspired by their stories of suffering and strength.

“It continually reinforces how lucky I am to be healthy and how strong our patients are for getting through this,” Vita said today. “I can’t believe there was a job that enabled me to build something that really does help people.”

Courtney Blasl contributed reporting.

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Katie, winner of the 2016 James Murphy Cub Reporter of the Year award from the L.I. Press Club, is a co-publisher of RiverheadLOCAL. A Riverhead native, she is a 2014 graduate of Stony Brook University. Email Katie