A RISE Dispensary is now open to the public seven days a week in Danville. A grand opening will be held July 15. Photo by Grace Mamon.

Patient demand has brought a medical marijuana dispensary to Danville, the first of its kind in Southside. Though Virginia hasn’t yet set up a retail market for cannabis, RISE Dispensaries hopes to one day serve both medical and recreational customers. 

In 2021, the General Assembly legalized personal possession of cannabis for recreational purposes. But there’s still no legal retail market because the state legislature has failed to establish one for two sessions in a row. 

That doesn’t mean people aren’t buying and selling cannabis, though, said Jack Page, Virginia market leader at Green Thumb Industries, which owns RISE Dispensaries. 

“There is a de facto marketplace in Virginia already,” Page said. “It’s just not licensed or taxed or, frankly, safe for Virginians to access.”

Basically, “illegal dispensaries,” or the cannabis black market, in Virginia will thrive until the General Assembly comes up with a legal way to buy and sell, he said. 

In the meantime, Page said that medical marijuana dispensaries like RISE are a way to supply safe product — at least to people who have a medical marijuana certification.  

RISE, and the state’s other medical dispensaries, are third-party lab tested and are regulated by the Virginia Board of Pharmacy, Page said. 

RISE Dispensaries is a cannabis retail chain owned by Green Thumb Industries, which is based in Chicago. But its story starts in Abingdon.

Page, along with his husband, Michael Johnson, and a few other Abingdon locals, founded Dharma Pharmaceuticals, a medical marijuana processor, which they sold to Green Thumb in 2021. 

Though Green Thumb is headquartered out of state, “we say we’re still Virginia-led, because the founders of Dharma are still in leadership positions here,” Page said. 

RISE Dispensaries, which opened in 2015, has 83 locations across 14 states. 

“When we opened the first dispensary in the state in Bristol in October of 2020, we asked people to put a pin on a map of where they were from in Virginia,” Page said. “Even though Bristol is in a very far corner of the state, since we were the only one, we had people coming from all over.”

They saw a large cluster of patients from Danville, he said. RISE has always delivered to Danville, but the high demand led the company to open a physical location in the city. 

“We saw a need to have a presence here,” Page said. Since the new location was announced, RISE has heard lots of positive feedback from Danville residents. “A lot of patients were telling us that they’re so happy we are opening in Danville, because they used to have to drive to Lynchburg and now they don’t.”

In addition to Bristol and the new Danville location, RISE also has dispensaries in Abingdon, Christiansburg, Lynchburg and Salem. 

All of these locations are in the state’s Health Service Area III. Virginia is divided into five HSAs, and by law each of those regions can have up to six dispensaries. There are currently 20 dispensaries in the state, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Each of the five health service areas in Virginia is limited to no more than six medical marijuana dispensaries. The RISE location in Danville is the sixth dispensary in HSA III. Image from the Virginia Division of Health Statistics. 

HSA III stretches across Southwest Virginia and most of Southside. The Danville dispensary will be the sixth in this region.

“That’s our statutory limit,” Page said. “We call it a geographic wall, and we cannot operate outside of that.”

But these geographic limits don’t apply to patients, who are allowed to purchase from dispensaries across the state. And processors, facilities that produce medical cannabis, are allowed to wholesale to dispensaries across HSAs as well. 

To qualify for medical marijuana in Virginia, patients must be diagnosed with a qualifying medical condition and obtain a written certification from a Board of Pharmacy-registered practitioner. RISE recognizes patients who have recommendations from in-person or telehealth providers.

Telehealth is an important service when it comes to medical cannabis recommendations, especially in rural Virginia, Page said. 

“When [Virginia’s medical cannabis] program first started, I believe there were only around seven practitioners in our entire region that were set to recommend,” he said. “That’s why telehealth was super important for Southwest and Southside Virginia.”

Virginia’s medical cannabis program has evolved since it was legalized in 2017, and continues to do so as the state works out how to regulate it. 

Starting in January 2024, the Board of Pharmacy will no longer oversee the state’s medical cannabis program. A new entity, the Cannabis Control Authority, will take over

RISE hopes to serve both medical cannabis patients and general retail customers in the future, Page said. 

“Typically, when states transition from medical only to an adult-use market, the medical providers are looked to first, because we can get to market and get safe products out there for people to purchase, not on the black market, while other licenses are coming online,” Page said. “We would hope Virginia follows that pattern.”

Page said a legal retail market in Virginia, should it be established, would not threaten RISE’s current operation as a medical dispensary. 

The two markets “would work in conjunction,” he said. “Each state does it differently. Most states do require the medical providers, if they’re also serving an adult-use market, to guarantee supply to the medical patients first.”

Some dispensaries have two different doors, so that medical patients come in much more quickly than general retail customers, he said. 

“We want to continue to serve medical patients, but we do want to serve both parties,” Page said.

RISE opened its Danville location to the public Wednesday, and Page said there was a line outside the door that morning. 

The city and its residents have been very welcoming, he said. There will be a grand opening event at the West Main Street location on July 15. 

Patients must go through a certification check before being buzzed into the store. RISE sells a variety of cannabis products, including edibles, vape cartridges, muscle rubs, tinctures and botanical cannabis, or flower. 

Patients can also buy non-cannabis items, like devices to administer the cannabis. 

“We don’t want you to buy something here and then have to go elsewhere to get what you actually need,” Page said. 

Kiosks inside the store list the menu of items currently in RISE’s inventory. Patients can place an order at the kiosk or speak with an employee directly. 

Page said the ability to serve new patients is the most exciting part of this new location. 

Johnson, Page’s husband and district manager for Green Thumb, said that medical cannabis has gradually become more accepted, but there’s still a ways to go. 

“It’s time to remove the stigma,” Johnson said. “We are medicine.”

Grace Mamon is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at grace@cardinalnews.org or 540-369-5464.