Small Business

A look inside Manhattan's first medical marijuana dispensary

Inside manhattan's first marijuana dispensary
Inside manhattan's first marijuana dispensary

With medicinal marijuana licenses in hand, New York dispensaries are finally gearing up to sell cannabis legally beginning Thursday.

Columbia Care arguably has one the buzziest dispensary locations in New York City's Union Square neighborhood. The state in July granted five medicinal marijuana licenses.

Nicholas Vita, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, runs Columbia Care. He's gearing up to open his shop on 14th Street. Business neighbors include a CityMD office and a Chickpea restaurant.

"Almost every subway line in the city touches Union Square, which makes the location incredibly accessible," said Vita, Columbia Care's chief executive.

And in case you're wondering, there are no marijuana plants on-site. Columbia Care has been growing its marijuana in Rochester, as the law requires all cannabis to be cultivated and manufactured in the state.

Read MoreVireo Health New York is preparing to sell medicinal cannabis in the state

Inside Columbia Care, one of New York City's first medicinal marijuana dispensaries. The Columbia Care shop is located on 14th Street right off Manhattan's Union Square.
Jodi Gralnick | CNBC

The dispensary's exterior is intentionally discreet, lacking marijuana plant designs so commonly seen around the country. There are five security cameras out front, and patients will be buzzed in after showing medicinal program cards. Once inside, customers are invited back to the pharmacy area. The interior space is modern and warm, not sterile like a doctor's office.

But key larger questions remain including how many medical practitioners will participate in the program, and recommend medicinal marijuana to patients.

Also, health insurance does not cover medical marijuana so patients will have to pay out of pocket. Columbia Care will run a separate program for low-income patients. The company has submitted its consumer-facing price proposals to the state for approval.

"There remains uncertainty ... [around] the willingness of the medical community to recommend marijuana as an alternative treatment," says Matt Karnes, founder of GreenWave Advisors, an industry watcher. The New York program is a "symbolic step forward in terms of visibility and awareness," he said.

Jodi Gralnick | CNBC

The dispensary's pending opening comes as New York puts into practice one of the country's most restrictive medicinal marijuana laws. The Compassionate Care Act was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in July 2014.

"We will be providing products and services to a chronically ill patient that hasn't had a great deal of success relying on the standard of care," Vita said. "Part of our mandate is to provide the highest-quality products, services and information so patients can make the right decisions with their physicians," he said.

New York patients seeking medicinal marijuana have been diagnosed with a "specific severe, debilitating or life-threatening condition that is accompanied by an associated or complicating condition," according to the New York state Department of Health. This currently includes 10 different recognized conditions including an HIV infection or AIDS, cancer and ALS.

The department declined to respond to multiple requests from CNBC on the size of the state program in terms of registered doctors and patients.

Smoking the product is restricted in New York state, as is consuming via edibles. Instead, approved uses of cannabis include liquid and oil preparations for consumption orally or through a tube as well as capsules, according to the department.

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David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Competition was steep in New York as 43 companies nationwide applied for five state licenses. Each license allows for the operation of one manufacturing facility and four dispensaries, all of which have to be located in the state.

Additional business license winners include Etain, PharmaCannis, Bloomfield Industries and Vireo Health New York.

More NYC-area dispensaries are slated to open in the Bronx and Queens.

Across the country, 23 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana use, according to GreenWave Advisors. Four states and D.C. allow for recreational use of marijuana.

And while a leap into the recreational space may seem like a natural next move for a company like Columbia Care, Vita maintains the business models have little in common. "The mission is to serve patients and provide an alternative to very serious pharmaceutical products," Vita says.