The long-delayed dispensary in southern Delaware is expected to open in a few weeks, saving Sussex County medical marijuana card holders from having to drive more than an hour to Wilmington for their pot.

The Vineyards in Lewes looks like any other mixed use development near Delaware's beaches. The development on Rt. 9 west of Rt. 1 in Lewes features some retail businesses on the first floor, with apartments above. But inside one of those storefronts is a very different type of business. Inside is the First State Compassion Center's second medical marijuana dispensary.

Inside, the dispensary looks very similar to your local bank branch, featuring a long counter with separate windows for patients with valid medical marijuana cards to pick up their pot. "According to Delaware law, a person is allowed to purchase three ounces in a 14 day period, and possess no more than 6 ounces in a 28 day period," said Mark Lally, a former Delaware State Police trooper who runs FSCC facilities in Wilmington and Lewes.

The company's Wilmington dispensary was the first in the state to open in 2015. The Lewes dispensary will open sometime later this spring. "I imagine we'll start out here somewhere with around 500 patients to open with, and I expect that to double in about six months," Lally said during a media tour of the Sussex center.

Despite the close proximity to nearby residents, Lally doesn't expect problems with FSCC's neighbors. "I think people are starting to understand just from the fact that we did open Delaware's first dispensary in New Castle County and had virtually no problems whatsoever," Lally said. "People started realizing that this is not the evil thing, that marijuana is not the evil product that everybody thought that it was and has been taught that it is."

He said there won't be a problem with the aroma of marijuana spreading to other units in the building because no pot will be grown at the Lewes facility. All growing, cultivating and packaging will be handled at FSCC's Wilmington center. Patients won't be able to unseal their marijuana or consume it inside the Lewes center. By law, that has to be done in the privacy of a patient's home.

Outside, the dispensary will have a simple sign identifying the location, but Lally said they're not trying to draw too much attention to the facility. It's only for patients. "It isn't open to the public, we don't want the general public stopping in, we don't want to refuse people from coming in because they're curious, but we have to abide by regulations and by our policies."

From medical to recreational

With a second medical marijuana dispensary opening, advocates of legalizing recreational marijuana are optimistic that full legalization could be the next step. "We do see this as two very separate industries, with a need for both of them," said Zoë Patchell of the Cannabis Bureau of Delaware. "It's very important to also tax and regulate recreational cannabis for all adults 21 and over."

On Thursday, a group of state lawmakers led by Sen. Margaret Rose Henry and Rep. Helene Keeley introduced legislation that would legalize marijuana for use by adults over age 21. It's a bill members of the Cannabis Bureau have been lobbying for over the past few years

The state's budget woes have given the group ammunition in their pitch to members of the General Assembly. "The fact of the matter is, with a $385 million budget deficit, Delaware cannot afford to wait on this issue," Patchell said. "The solutions to this budget deficit is raise taxes, raise property taxes, when for the very first time in history, we have a consumer group lobbying our elected officials to be taxed."

Despite advocate's optimism of using the budget argument to encourage support, Rep. Keeley doesn't see the legislation as a budget fix. But she did quote estimates from the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. which showed the state could collect $22 million from pot sales in the first taxable year.

Last week, Governor John Carney presented a budget to lawmakers that definitely did not include tax revenue from marijuana. Carney does not support that idea, although it was pitched to him at several budget briefings he held with residents earlier this year. "We barely stood up our medical marijuana program quite frankly, we ought to get that up and running and get the experience with that before we jump into something that I think has negative effects as well," Carney told a group of residents in Wilmington in January. "If we believe that that's going to solve this fiscal problem, I think we're kidding ourselves."

State worker Christine Kirkland was at that meeting in Wilmington and urged Carney to reconsider. "The only hope that I can see is if they legalize marijuana in the state of Delaware which would definitely generate revenue," Kirkland said "As a governor he should be objective and listen to the people since he too is a public service worker."

If the state were to approve recreational marijuana, Mark Lally wants in. "What we would hope to be able to supplement the medical marijuana through our recreational programs," Lally said. "I would welcome recreational as part of my business to be able to help supplement the medical part and make it more affordable for the patients who can't afford it."

The recreational marijuana bill introduced this week would allow medical marijuana dispensaries to apply for a license to also sell pot for recreational use. Sen. Henry said it would be easier for the existing dispensaries to get up and running. "They already have the infrastructure in place," Henry said. "They've been selling medical marijuana for a period of time so they've set up how you do it."

A third medical marijuana center is scheduled to open in Kent County later this year. That facility in Dover will be run by a different group, Columbia Care, and is set to open its doors in the second half of 2017.