Dr. Karen Munkacy has two very intriguing stories to tell. One is about how she became the founder of the newest medical marijuana store in Massachusetts. The other has to do with how she became Jewish. While both are fascinating, the second one is uncanny.
There are now nine medical marijuana stores – known as dispensaries – in the state. The first opened on Grove Street in Salem in June of 2015, and the latest was opened in Newton last month by a non-profit founded by Munkacy called Garden Remedies, Inc. How Munkacy, a medical doctor, found her way into this business has to do with her own health issues.
About 12 years ago she received a scary diagnosis. “I had stage 3B breast cancer, which is an advanced form of breast cancer, and I had about a 50% chance of dying from cancer. My son was two years old at the time and I was young and healthy other than having cancer. So the treatment I was given was very aggressive; 28 radiation treatments, six surgeries and four months of very intense chemotherapy.”
With such intensive treatment, Munkacy dealt with severe nausea, like having a case of the Flu but 1,000 times worse, she explained, and the symptoms were continuous – the sort of case where marijuana can provide great relief. But Munkacy “never used it because it wasn’t legal. And I also had to move in with my elderly in-laws because I couldn’t take care of myself and I was not going to break the law in their house.” There was also a serious, career-related matter for the anesthesiologist to consider. “The fact that I’m a physician and I’d be using a schedule one substance.” She could have lost her license to practice medicine if somehow marijuana use led to a legal entanglement.
“So I never used it,” Munkacy continued. “It was a horrible experience, no one should have to go through that.” While she didn’t use marijuana when she was sick, she thought it should be available. “I prayed every day when I was sick and worrying about dying. One of the things I said in my prayers was that if I survived, at some point in my life, I would try to make this legally available so other patients wouldn’t have to suffer the way I was.”
Which led the Chestnut Hill resident to become an activist for the legalization of medical marijuana. “After I became healthy again, I started to work on making it legally available for people so nobody would have to suffer the way I suffered. So I helped get it on the ballot in Massachusetts and helped get medical marijuana passed.”
Next, Munkacy started Garden Remedies, Inc. and applied for a license to open a store in Newton, which she was granted. Since the law requires that such dispensaries grow and process their own medicine, the company also opened a facility in central Mass. Last week, in a visit to the Fitchburg plant, what was immediately apparent is that this is a very serious, highly regulated business.
Security is tight, with a check in window just inside the small foyer of the large former wire manufacturing facility. Visitors have to fill out a form and provide a photo ID.
Once inside, a visitor puts on a disposable plastic jumpsuit known as a Tyvek (for its manufacturer), a hairnet, and shoe covers. Employees face a more diligent purification exercise, showering and putting on what look like doctor’s scrubs. Then, there’s a small glass box with about 20 nozzles to the left and right that shoot high-speed air to blow pollens and other contaminants off of clothes, skin and hair. “Don’t look at me, my hair is a mess,” said COO Mary Melnick of Newton after she’d been through the blower.
The marijuana plants grow in different rooms based on where they are in their stages of development. “This allows each plant to be exposed to the same amount of light each day that it would if it were growing naturally,” explained Tom Haley, the communications director for the facility. In each white cinderblock growing room, the only light the plants get is artificial.
And while you might expect to see the plants growing in water, Haley said they are grown in soil because, “We believe that grows the best plant. We take pride in that.”
Munkacy’s road to Judaism is unusual. She was raised Catholic, in Michigan, to adoptive parents. But when she was 16, “I had a crush on a boy – I was at a summer science camp – and that’s how I learned about Judaism, and that’s when I decided I was going to convert.” Why? “There was a moment when I realized that this was a religion that really resonated with me. It’s a very scholarly religion, it’s not just about being told what to believe, there’s discussion. I decided that that was the religion that most correlated with my beliefs.”
Fourteen years later, the most incredible part of the story occurred. “At age 30, I met my biologic mother, and I was stunned to find out that she was Jewish, Sonya Markus. You can’t make these things up,” she said, laughing.