This morning, Pittsburgh’s Zoning Board of Adjustment will consider a dozen or so projects — variance requests for a garage with a rooftop deck, two additional stories to an existing building, residential space used for retail.
But the board will also consider for the first time “a new and unlisted use”: a medical marijuana dispensary.
The woman behind the proposed dispensary on the North Side is Dr. Shannon Thieroff, the owner and founder of Choice Chiropractic in the North Hills.
During her 18 years as a chiropractor, she’s seen “conditions that don’t respond to traditional medical treatment,” Thieroff told The Incline, as well as patients suffering from “unpleasant side effects” of medication.
She’s treated people with chronic pain who are medication dependent and suffer from a poor quality of life, as well as patients undergoing cancer treatment who are so nauseated they can’t eat. “But if they could, they would be stronger so they could withstand more treatment,” she said.
Parkinson’s. Multiple sclerosis. ALS. PTSD. The list of conditions she’s seen is long.
“These are people that are just trying to literally stay alive,” Thieroff said, and “enjoy what period of time they have left, have good quality of life, or just be able to function.”
The reality is that people with these conditions have been using marijuana purchased illegally to treat chronic conditions for a long time, risking prosecution while using what Thieroff called an “inconsistent product.”
The state’s law will allow people with those conditions and more to purchase medical marijuana as oil, pills, in topical form and, in some cases, a form that can be vaporized. (No edibles — and nothing that can be smoked.) Pennsylvania hopes to have the program up and running by next year.
“Growers and processors have created products where you can really define what kind of symptoms that product is good for managing,” Thieroff said, “so that it gives patients very controlled, high-quality, consistent results.”
‘Transparency is key’
Thieroff was raised on the North Side and now lives in the North Hills.
She’s run her own practices for 16 years, mentoring young female doctors and selling them the businesses they started together. She considers herself a “big sister in business” with “a particular passion for business development.”
As she saw pharmaceutical companies make “more and more medications,” and her patients continue to suffer from side effects, Thieroff said she looked to alternative ways of pain and symptom treatment. She watched as medical marijuana was legalized in other states, “never thinking that Pennsylvania would get to the point when we were ready for that.”
But after months of debate, Pennsylvania did get to that point. In April 2016, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill that allows people with 17 conditions to obtain medical marijuana and 150 dispensaries to operate statewide.
“I thought, ‘Here we go. This is our chance to bring this much needed medicine to people in our area,'” she said of the bill’s passage.
The Department of Health will issue up to 12 permits for growers and processors and up to 27 permits for dispensaries during the first phase of rollout. The state has been divided into six zones that can obtain a restricted number of each type of permit. Region 5, which includes Pittsburgh, can get five dispensary permits, with two going to Allegheny County.
The competition is expected to be fierce. Pennsylvania expects 900 individuals and groups to apply for permits. For potential dispensaries, the process requires an applicant pay $5,000, put up a refundable $30,000 fee and show $150,000 in capital.
The deadline to apply is March 20.
Before applying for a permit, Thieroff built a team of “competent advisors,” from a chief security officer who’s a former Marine and State Police officer to other physicians and pharmacists. Her security plan “goes beyond” the state’s requirements, with a veteran-certified company providing logistical support.
“I wanted people on my team that were patient focused and patient centric,” she said.
Thieroff has secured a location on Western Avenue in Deutschtown (through an attorney, the owner of the building declined to comment) and would eventually do business as Green House Apothecary. She’s already meeting with community members to explain what she wants to do.
“We will talk to as many community groups, as long as we need to, to let them know who we are, how we do business and who we’re trying to help,” she said. “We are willing to do that as much as we need to to create an environment where people understand the program and how it works.”
She knows that there will be people in the community who are already familiar with medical marijuana — and those who aren’t.
“My job is to make people aware of how the program works, who has access, what types of conditions it treats,” Thieroff said.
One of Thieroff’s long-term plans is to hold a monthly class or Q&A with a staff member to answer the community’s questions.
“If somebody has an issue, it gives them an open forum for discussing it,” she said. “We think that’s important. Transparency is key in this.”
Of course, all of this is dependent on getting a zoning variance from the city — and a coveted license.
Coming into this “from a clinical perspective,” Thieroff said she was surprised by the existence of “medical marijuana giants,” major companies that have licenses in several other states that partner with individuals. “They put a face on it, but really it’s big business,” she said.
“To ensure that this runs right, you need to have people that are owners that have vested local interests, so that they’re serving Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, right here.”
The North Side and Pittsburgh
Thieroff wants to open her dispensary on the North Side for many reasons.
The neighborhood is “diverse and inclusive,” she said, accessible by public transit and near Allegheny General Hospital. That way, patients seeking treatment don’t have “unnecessary hardship or travel” to access the dispensary.
Thieroff said she also wants “clients to feel welcome regardless of their ethnicity, physical status [or] gender status,” which is “hard to do where you’re in the middle of suburbia” where diversity can be lacking.
She’s watched the community change since she was a child in the 1970s and sees the area “economically redeveloping rapidly, but nonetheless there’s still a lot of opportunity to economically redevelop here to create jobs for people that live here.”
That’s the message she and some of her patients who could benefit from medical marijuana will bring to today’s zoning hearing.
While it could take several weeks for the board to decide, Thieroff said, “We’re hoping they make a decision quickly.”
Thieroff notes that other dispensary applicants are looking to set up shop in areas that already have a zoning change in place. She said she’s willing to go through the process so patients can have access.
“It’s important to have one in the city,” she said.
She’s the first dispensary applicant to go through the zoning process in Pittsburgh and, according to the city, the only one scheduled to do so.
“A lot of the other applicants have gone to other places and have avoided the city just because of this, but I’m not afraid of it,” she said. “I’m willing to stand firm in what I believe about the importance of this medicine. Its impact can be really positive on humanity and on communities. That’s why I’m doing it.”