Recommended Listening: Noche Oscura by Feng Suave
At the start of October, I received an offer to help consult for a chain of small recreational dispensaries in Michigan. I’ve changed some of the details to protect myself while maintaining hard truths or enough detail about the situation to prevent this incompetence from entering Arizona. Contacted by a friend of a friend, J.D., the newly appointed director of operations for the first recreational dispensary in Iron Mountain, MI, admitted to being in trouble as she needed to open the first dispensary immediately, with ten to twelve more opening soon after. J.D. told me about the problems she faced with the dispensary owner, Mr. J, who in her words “doesn’t smoke, doesn’t know shit, and is probably illiterate.” Speaking to him, he admitted that it was his parents who had the money and stuck him with the job of opening these dispensaries for them. He had told me that it was a revolving door of experts and consultants for about nine months prior. It was clear that he had faced the same troubles that I’ve made a career from, by fixing past mistakes here in Arizona made by qualified know-nothings or influencers. We spoke, negotiated, and I had myself a job. He was put at ease after I had answered some base level operational questions, but it was also piece of mind knowing he had hired someone who was not only qualified but confident in their abilities to open a dispensary.
Unfortunately, my experience was met with hostility as the faults of corporate cannabis practices in non-corporate settings became evident along with the revelation that J.D. was inept in her position. Background for J.D. had actually revealed that she had done some work here in AZ with one of the first dispensaries to open for the medical program. Further investigation reveals J.D. then continued this dispensary career back east in Ohio, taking advantage of her family’s wealth and political contacts in the Midwest while never fully educating herself on standards of practice in existing markets. This seems to be commonplace in the cannabis industry as it was quickly revealed as I spoke to her about what needed our attention first, that she had no actual knowledge. In the process of making beginning notes, the façade of false knowledge, a possibly inappropriate relationship with the ownership, and theft of rival corporate cannabis handbooks had come to light. There was no true knowledge of compliance, there was no desire to create a cannabis community or dispensary for the people, and that greed had long taken root. J.D. feeling intimidated by common morals as well as the vast experience and innovation brought from the Arizona market became unraveled. It was then her true character was revealed causing accusatory, defensive, and aggressive behavior by projecting insecurities born of ignorance. The initial shock was a disappointment but it reaffirmed all the red flags I had learned here in Arizona, and so I quickly exited the situation.
Gaining some distance and thinking back on the attended training, addressing known issues, as well as learning the operating codes of Michigan recreational left me with many questions. How will the market divide here in Arizona with recreational cannabis, will we see the same issues I witnessed in Michigan with our own split market into full blown franchise culture? Are we in the same dubious hands that seem to be extending their influence on markets to the east? Taking time to reflect and shake off the privileges of those who have not earned their place in the market, I find my peace. A short answer of no, we have an array of talented industry experts who have committed themselves to the cannabis community; who themselves self-regulate with a variety of knowledgeable and experienced representatives. Our state also has solid procedures and laws that prevent the culture of big cannabis that has swept the East. The path of Michigan recreational cannabis is one rife with trouble from inexperienced fakes, a grey/black market that will be unchecked, and chronic lack of oversight in regards to basic safety as well as education. I am going to go over how the differences are pronounced between the two states, how our state has an endless amount of potential, and my honest outlook of what recreational weed in Arizona will look like in comparison.
States of Difference
Michigan has some obtuse ideas and strange practices with cannabis. Security and any sort of standards to hold compliance are non existent. The first issue I was informed of was the unsafe work environment for the dispensary that was being allowed. Security on staff had not happened, while serious blind spots in camera setups, and doors that don’t have any locks or systems to regulate movement in the building. This means if some bandits from Wisconsin get desperate, they’re able to cross a state line to waltz in much like the construction crew that was still working on the building interrupting an intake of cannabis. The concept of a panic button was not considered, and leadership seemed complicit in not spending more to protect employees or customers. Thankfully, you won’t see this in Arizona as it has long been a priority to protect both patient and patient advisor as a part of state compliance. Medical Dispensaries face inspection to assure internal practices but also to verify the building safety to both industry workers or consumers.
The threat of theft or armed robbery for the retail storefront was a major issue that only led to more troubling revelations about the safety of production facilities. Recreation will bring out hobbyists, organized crime, and true masters of cannabis cultivation, I’ve witnessed this first-hand in multiple places. In Arizona, the recreational initiative is designed for personal consumption and cultivation. There are provisions to make sure a guerrilla grow operation doesn’t begin behind the local burger joint. This was not the case with Michigan, and the potential cultivation being set up for purchase wasn’t licensed. This was serious, but no one seemed to think the consequences through because the law had no regulations other than growing over 200 plants is only a $50 misdemeanor. The idea that people have an issue with allotments means you’re missing the point; it isn’t to exclusively regulate your consumption but to also regulate production. The idea that anyone could have 200 plants growing with no oversight could have multiple problems. A few would be, the use of pesticides or chemicals in the cannabis, a flood of private grows facilitates drive down quality and retail price in a market inundated with privately grown cannabis which brings problems from organized crime with distribution. Without partial funding and organization with law enforcement, those doing wrong can then harm anyone with little to no consequences.
The medical dispensaries of Arizona are unique and always trying to innovate. The medical market has always been improving, with every dispensary working hard to make the experience as memorable and accessible as possible. That being said, daily interactions or deals that many have come to expect really don’t exist in other markets. First time patient deals were not a discussion, and the conversations on discounts were how little could you give before it was considered rude to veterans or fellow industry workers. A majority of that ownership does not care about you or your experience, expectations, or maintaining your business. They want to collect your money at least once, and will do that however they can without standards or conscience. The best example would be the quality of product being sourced, as the weed being smoked was some mid shelf at best. That said, it was hailed in the region as being the best of the best. Cultivated in an unlicensed facility with no testing or information on their methods had me questioning the pedigree. Being left with a sore throat or adverse effects such as headache, upset stomach, and pronounced anxiety are not issues I have normally with cannabis cultivated in Arizona. Again J.D., the director of operations was excited to acquire the grow while admitting cultivation ownership being inappropriate as well, with plans of coercing a better deal from them.
That alone left me disturbed with the business practices behind the scenes, but at a store front view, it only got worse. That “director of operations” at this opening had previously worked and opened a corporate owned dispensary where J.D. had admitted to planarization of all of their training materials to use in these independent dispensaries. The experience of shopping at corporate cannabis in Arizona is a collective of poor treatment that is widely avoided whenever possible. The reason is the unwillingness of those corporate storefronts to address common complaints, regulate quality, and not hike prices of common medicines. The bastardization by theft of their practices can only translate poorly to the consumer as those training manuals are not customer focused. The trouble extended to the hiring pool as it was centered on friends instead of skill or competence by a single member of the leadership. It is fair to say that the lack of loyalty and knowledge was the least worrying part of the team. The personal business of others was common knowledge along with any personal habits they might carry with them, such as methamphetamine use or affiliations with crime. A general distrust and intention of taking advantage of that information became evident in leadership. The subject of training was broached with the idea that whoever doesn’t fall in line will simply be fired, with no reasoning provided other than over staffing. The focus began to shift to teaching Point of Sale (POS) operations, education about cannabis, and directing the processing of material as a primary objective, it was unclear if with or without the staff if this dispensary would even open on time.
Leadership and Community
Timelines are difficult in any leadership position but basic business practices such as contracts for compensation should be commonplace. However, you would be hard pressed to find that in any of these positions or dispensaries opening in Iron Mountain, MI. A personal rule has been to not use my own money for jobs I’m unsure of, so thankfully my plane tickets were bought for me. The discovery that the directing leadership was broken and insecure came early so return tickets were sought immediately. Concern over the leadership using their own money with only a promise of compensation from ownership was disheartening. In today’s market, even in Arizona, innovators are sought to be taken advantage of. A horrible reality for these employees is they might not be paid, as a payroll had only been established days before I arrived with an opening date set for a week later. Ownership could decide to not pay what was agreed upon to any employee or consultant, and those funding their own employment might face large losses. All of which is during a pandemic that will have residual effects for years to come on the economy. My hope is that the company is honest and fair to those in their employ, but I personally would not continue to work for leadership so unfit to lead.
The repercussions of back alley deals, and the lack of clear legislation had also led to a host of problems promised to the local government as well as the communities by the dispensary leadership. The allure of tax revenue from cannabis is always a subject that the state government will want to agree upon beforehand with a licensed dispensary owner. I found a problem occurs if there are more than one owner, or an ownership group with a lack of communication to state officials or those who deal on their behalf; which when it occurs results in an abundance of unfulfilled promises or failed community initiatives. A promise to improve literacy or fix roads using tax revenue from cannabis should be written into legislation or the community is at risk of being cheated. The other side of that coin is the dispensary and its ownership are safe from unrealistic expectations or surprise initiatives to regulate cannabis further. I witnessed the Oregon transition into recreational just as it has in Michigan, and it resolves my support for Prop 207.
These subjects were pronounced while I was in Michigan, and I feel it translates to a warning for our future with cannabis in Arizona. We are so better prepared with defined and accountable amounts of legislation, as well as safe under Arizona license owners. Learning the grandiose promises of dispensary ownership to an area without formal legislation or planning, was unreal. The outlined goals if not timeline alone on such promises such as new booming tourism, increasing literacy, or dedicating jobs to the local community were not grounded in reality. The local community cannot expect quality education or the ability to count on the quality of their medicine. The local recreational dispensary is set up to fail and fail those in its employ with lack of basic business practices. These issues along with basic safety or benefits for employees seem far off as most of these big cannabis companies lure talent in with robust starting salaries only to gouge the wage. The trend of dispensaries giving you options such as being protected and having healthcare, or being able to afford rent with bills has improved, but it seems like you can’t have both in the recreation market or industry resurgence. The staff being misinformed will result in a revolving door of employees trained, or possibly not, resulting in the spread of misinformation. Operating from corporate handbooks means poor service with the worst quality in favor of big profits as policy. Finally, allowing the absolute worst and least qualified to lead will have a trickle down effect that will diminish public faith in the recreational cannabis program.
Arizona has so much going for itself, and the future is bright for cannabis in comparison to elsewhere in the world. I do not take for granted the transparency and access to our medical program, providers, sponsors, and their products. Implementation of testing is only going to improve our quality and consistency in the market. Dispensaries and vendors are essential business, so they seek to employ in a manner that reflects that. Our programs and propositions are organized with safety as the primary objective. Vendors, activists, and influencers here share a common mission of education and expertise in the community as a basis for their cannabis needs. Finally, the community will thrive from business, the community will be served with the highest of standards, and the community, both medical and recreational patients, will be kept safe. If you vote, you can have some influence on the outcomes in Arizona. For better or worse, life is full of choices, whether that is taking on a job in a new place, or deciding on healthcare laws for your home and neighbors. The time is now to be the example of what can be achieved in cannabis, or be the innovators of what could be. Educate yourself on who opens your newest recreational dispensary, because “Money talks bro!” Anyone looking East for work opportunities, do so only with travel and a contract in pace or vice versa should you enter Arizona to work for a company based here. We have so many medical leaders working to lead us in the right direction with whatever laws exist.
Adrian Ryan was born in New Mexico and attended school since elementary in Arizona, his time growing up split between the two states. He hopes to work towards recreational cannabis, enjoys reading, writing, film, music, and also writing music.