Originally published in The East Valley Tribune
Former U.S. Marine Jack Albini of Gilbert says working at a medical marijuana dispensary doesn’t feel like a job; he feels he is fulfilling his mission to save other veterans.
The 32-year-old patient consultant is a “budtender” at Giving Tree Wellness Center in Mesa, a reference to the part of the marijuana leaf he sells.
Albini suffered a traumatic brain injury and serious problems with his back and knees while deployed to Iraq in 2004 and 2005, then battled more demons when he returned to civilian life in North Carolina. He felt guilty and sad about his fellow soldiers killed in combat.
Doctors prescribed him strong painkillers, anti-depressants and sleeping pills to cope with his physical, mental and emotional issues. But the medications left him feeling exhausted and emotionally numb.
Relief came when Albini started using medical marijuana on a regular basis after he moved to the Valley about two years ago. Now he’s much happier – and passionate about helping other veterans find the right medical cannabis to alleviate pain and handle their physical and emotional wounds.
“Being a veteran, I wanted to help other veterans,” Albini said. “I wanted to show them the light, to show them there is another alternative besides chemicals.”
“I’m seeing my brothers kill themselves at an alarming rate,” he added, citing veterans who commit suicide. “I might not be here if I had still been on the medications.”
Albini earns $15 an hour and works more than 32 hours a week at the dispensary on East Juanita Avenue. He helps veterans and other patients with state medical marijuana cards figure out what strain, potency and species of cannabis to buy.
He’s among the six patient consultants who help patients not only choose among the many different strains, but also select the way they want to consume it.
Usually, Giving Tree Wellness Center in Mesa has 12 to 15 different strains of medical marijuana, which can be used to treat illnesses such as PTSD, arthritis, nausea, depression and carpal tunnel syndrome.
And in a locked area that looks like a store, patients can also buy gummy bears, brownies, chocolate bars, coffee and other pot-infused edibles. Then, there are mints and capsules with cannabis as well as tinctures, which are drops that contain marijuana. The center also sells cannabis oil and vapes that resemble pens to breathe in the oil.
Some days, Albini talks to 200 patients and he gets to know them and their conditions.
“You get familiar with them and what their needs are,” Albini said. “They like specific effects.”
Michael Leone, Giving Tree’s assistant manager, that kind of relationship-building makes Albini an asset.
“Jack’s a great employee,” Leone said. “He’s very personable, extremely knowledgeable.”
Patients tell Albini about any side effects they have experienced, including unusual hunger or jumpiness. Everyone’s needs and the way the plant affects them are different, he noted.
About 100 to 130 patients visit the Juanita Avenue center per day, while a slightly smaller crowd visits the Giving Tree Wellness Center in north Phoenix, where a dispensary and a grow house operate, Leone said.
Albini said he has seen young children, accompanied by their parents, and people in their 80s come to the center for medical marijuana. He explained that cannabis oil can reduce the number of seizures suffered by some children with serious health conditions.
When patients have complicated medical questions, they can talk to Giving Tree Wellness Center co-owner, co-founder and medical director Dr. Gina Berman, a former emergency room physician. Co-owner and co-founder Lilach Mazor Power, the managing director of the center, is a former sergeant in the Israeli Air Force.
Albini said he’s happy to be helping other veterans improve their lives.
“That’s one of the biggest things we hear: ‘I was on so many pills and I was tired of it,’” he said.