Jan. 20 2016 12:12 AM

Whether you see marijuana as a healing herb or a scourge on society, local dispensaries peddling the plant aren’t likely to be leaving any time soon. Although marijuana and its derivatives are still illegal in the eyes of the federal government, legalization, decriminalization and medical marijuana movements have been rippling through local and state governments, including here in Michigan.

If you lived in Lansing five years ago, you may remember the wave of pop-up dispensaries that briefly swept across the city, many of which were proudly emblazoned with a giant neon pot leaf in their front windows. Business was booming, but concerned neighbors were less than enthused about the negative perceptions. Eventually, the saberrattling of our attorney general led most of those businesses to shutter in November 2011.

But a rebranding effort led by caregivers inhabiting low-key, professional-looking office spaces is trying to change the perception of medical marijuana provision centers. The latest, Nature’s Alternative, opened last week.

“The public perception of medical marijuana has come a long way since (the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act in) 2008,” said Matthew Wagner, who owns and operates the store with his business partner, Adam Macdonald. “And there have been a lot of changes, too, including a rise in demand for medicine that doesn’t give you a buzz.”

Wagner said one of the fastest growing segments of medical marijuana patients — and one of the most controversial — is children. Parents are using marijuana to treat conditions like epilepsy, asthma, psoriasis and Koolen-de Vries syndrome, a rare chromosome disorder that causes painful seizures.

“People hear about this and they think kids are smoking joints — they’re not,” Wagner said. “There are many ways to (ingest) the medicine that don’t involve smoking.”

Marijuana has two main active chemical compounds: CBD and THC. Both have medicinal value, but THC also has psychoactive properties, which is what creates the high. By extracting the CBD and limiting the amount of THC, caregivers can create marijuana derivatives that target pain and seizure centers without getting the patient high.

“We’ve got construction workers and senior citizens who don’t want to pop pills, but don’t want to be high all day either,” Wagner said. “It allows people who had previously never considered trying (medical marijuana) to start to step forward. And we want them to feel comfortable doing so.”

The Nature’s Alternative building was formerly a Cashland retail store and a National City branch. Wagner and his team spent about $60,000 giving the 2,200-square-foot space a massive interior and exterior overhaul. New additions include a sleek waiting area complete with wood floors and grey brick half-walls and a futuristic-looking service area. It looks like a high-tech pharmacy — and technically it is.

“We have over 40 strains, but we also have medicinal oils, concentrates, edibles and salves,” Wagner said. “We did a lot of research to find all the best ways medical marijuana can be delivered. We’re trying to appeal to a wide variety of patients.”

Wagner said he became a caregiver to help out a sick friend shortly after the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act was passed. He and Macdonald opened the first Nature’s Alternative store in Detroit in 2009. The duo soon became activists as well, fighting for patient rights with groups like the National Patient Rights Association and the Detroit Medical Cannabis Guild.

“Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma surrounding (the marijuana industry), and the best way to fight that is through education,” Wagner said. “That and conducting business in a professional (manner). We try to exceed all regulations for provision centers.”

Wagner said all products are tested on-site for potency and impurities, and everything is bought exclusively from Michigan growers. His goal is to build personal relationships with all patients, including creating customized care that will most effectively target individual ailments.

“The most important thing is fitting in well with the community,” Wagner said. “We’re committed to maintaining high standards and providing the best medicine to the people who need it most. The patients who need us will find us. I’m confident of that.”

Nature’s Alternative 2521 S. Cedar St., Lansing 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday (517) 253-7290 facebook.com/naturesaltcliniclansing

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