The canna biz

West Michigan is learning to live with legal cannabis, but challenges persist.
Darel Ross of Forty Acres Consulting. Photo by Alfield Reeves

Marijuana was once taboo, an illicit drug that still has millions of people behind bars.

Children were told it was something to avoid at all costs, that it would rot brains and act as an entry to a world of other harmful drugs.

Now, however, states are legalizing the natural substance and a federal movement is making strides — in April, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a landmark bill. While the measure did not pass the Senate, the action shows there is promise for legislation that legalizes marijuana, eliminates criminal penalties involving the substance, taxes its products and creates procedures to expunge previous convictions.

For now, marijuana remains a Schedule 1 illegal drug on a national level, but many states, including Michigan, have made it perfectly legal to partake — both for medicinal and recreational purposes. Michigan voters approved legalized marijuana in 2018.

Michigan cannabis sales totaled more than $1.3 billion in 2021, according to the Cannabis Regulatory Agency. That resulted in more than $42 million in tax revenue for the state.

Michigan, as it turns out, could be a pivotal state in helping shape how the rest of the country legalizes marijuana, according to Alex Todd, co-founder of Saucey Farms and Extracts, a national brand that recently entered the Michigan market through Lake Life Farms.

“The whole market is still very young, and we’re excited to see the market mature as more stores open up,” Todd said. “Continuing to show up in new spaces like this is our way of growing with a maturing legalized cannabis market.”

While it might seem to some there’s already an abundance (potential oversupply) of cannabis shops in West Michigan, there are many in the industry who see there’s still lots of growth that can happen in the industry.

Last year, Grand Rapids Magazine spoke with former radio DJ Drew McCarthy, now the general manager at the marijuana dispensary Gage, about the industry. As the stigma fades, McCarthy said he sees the potential for marijuana to be talked about as casually as beer is here in Beer City, USA.

“The biggest thing: marijuana is legal,” he said. “Some of my friends and family, you light a joint and they worry if someone will smell this? I hope so, I spent money on it. First time I lit one of our Cookies Georgia Pie, my wife, she went, ‘Oh, my God, that smells like a cigar.’

“That’s where this industry is going. Talk about it like it’s a normal thing, just like it’s beer.”

Like McCarthy, many feel marijuana might even be less harmful than alcohol. Both substances can lead to detrimental effects because of altered states of mind. Unlike alcohol, however, which can lead to death from overconsumption, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said marijuana cannot lead to death from overuse. The CDC reports more than 30,000 annual deaths from health effects related to alcohol, while it doesn’t have a comparable marijuana category.

There also is evidence drinking alcohol is more harmful long-term to the brain. There are even studies that suggest there are nueroprotective qualities to marijuana — meaning it might be good for the brain.

It’s not all good news for the marijuana industry, however, as it still faces plenty of opposition and negative news stories. In May, a fifth-grader at a school in Livonia brought marijuana gummies to school and shared them with a classmate. Both were rushed to the emergency room.

Likewise, Michigan lawmakers are working to limit the exposure of marijuana advertising to children and local municipalities are battling the idea of dispensaries opening within their limits.

Plenty of opportunity

While there are hurdles impeding the cannabis industry’s growth, there also is hope, said Darel Ross, founder of 40 Acres Consulting. Ross started in the cannabis industry by consulting with people around licensing, prequalification, real estate options and land development.

A big hurdle in the licensing realm is the real estate and business must meet qualifications determined by the state and local municipalities. If it doesn’t meet all the ordinance requirements, the business is a no-go.

“If there’s no real estate that fits that criteria, you have no opportunities,” Ross said.

Ross said there is quite a bit of money flowing into the cannabis industry in Michigan, including from private investment dollars, credit unions and depositories.

“There is more demand than there are opportunities,” he said. “A lot of that is the unintended consequences of the policies that municipalities (have) limit the physical locations.

“But there is a lot of momentum, a lot of money and still a lot of opportunity to be found.”

Laura Bywalec of Joyology. Photo by Alfield Reeves

Marketing problems

Because marijuana is still an illegal drug at the federal level, one of the hardest aspects for the industry is marketing.

For Laura Bywalec, the marketing coordinator at Joyology, her job is largely focused around breaking down the stigma of marijuana — that it’s “bad” or just used to get “high.” The Joyology brand is built on the feeling of happiness and incorporates lots of colors and bubbles.

Bywalec said many of the dispensary’s customers are using marijuana for medical purposes and just the ability to function daily.

“It’s not just the stereotype of sitting on the couch, doing nothing,” Bywalec said. “My job is to showcase to other people who we are and what we’re doing.”

When she first started in her position last year, it was hard to even advertise anywhere. Joyology has had Instagram pages taken down.

“You can show someone consuming alcohol, but not cannabis,” she said.

In May, Bywalec said Joyology started airing a commercial on FOX 17. That commercial, however, could not say the business is a dispensary, say the word cannabis or showcase products.

“It’s focused on brand awareness, and you have to leave it up to the customers. You’re very limited to what you can say and can’t say,” she said.

This story can be found in the May/June 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here

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