Cannabis leaders push for education, social equity in 2021

Many are actively seeking workers from underserved communities.
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The relatively recent entry of cannabis retailers into the market is an opportunity for new avenues of education and employment. Courtesy Exclusive Brands

West Michigan’s recreational cannabis industry burst through concrete overcoming the challenges of 2020, but last year’s priorities still are the primary focus for 2021.

The cannabis boom in 2020 was driven by an increase in the average purchase size among consumers. In Michigan alone, recreational cannabis sales rose by 482% between January and December 2020.

Tom Benson, CEO of Fluresh, which opened West Michigan’s first adult-use provisioning center in Grand Rapids in October 2020, said the company had to adjust in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure employee and customer safety, while meeting customers’ needs.

Once the state approved cannabis delivery service, Fluresh quickly set up its own, with online ordering, packing of orders and pickup, so customer contact was limited as much as possible.

“Truthfully, for us, we wish we could do more in-person time with the consumer,” Benson said. “It gives us a better opportunity to discuss the industry and the new products and everything, but every business has had to adjust, so for us it was challenging, but I think in the long run, a lot of the adjustments are with us, and they’re going to stay.”

As more consumers come into the market, education is going to be important, Benson said, particularly for dosage and activation time. People may consume cannabis products for insomnia, anxiety, pain, recreationally or a number of other reasons, and therefore, want to understand what they’re getting.

“When somebody’s enjoying the benefits of marijuana or THC, they want to know, ‘How much should I be taking? Should I expect something to have an effect in 30 minutes or an hour?’ So dose control and fast-acting products, we feel, are going to be important,” Benson said.

Fluresh has two products that address that demand. One is a fast-acting drink enhancer that allows consumers to make their own cannabis-infused drinks with complete dose control and an accelerated onset of 10-15 minutes.

The other product is Fluresh’s Be Well soft gels formulated to address sleep, anxiety, pain and inflammation. The gels take effect in 10-30 minutes.

“As cannabis matures, that customization and personalization is going to be really important,” said Fluresh Chief Marketing and Sales Officer Lindsay Levin. “There’s still a market for traditional products. Bulk cannabis has been sold in the majority of all of the provisioning centers across the state, but we’re seeing more of a return to pre-packaged flower.”

Bulk sales of cannabis flower usually come from provisioning centers, which then process the plant and break it down into smaller doses for medical and retail customers, Levin added, but the process of bringing pre-packaged flower to customers means there are fewer hands touching it, ensuring more cleanliness and freshness, as well as reducing the labor cost for retailers.

“We sell both, because the market enjoys both sides, but I think one of the things we’re going to see in 2021 is more and more brands coming online with pre-packaged flower,” she said.

COVID-19 consciousness also is leading to more recreational users choosing edible products. While smoking or vaping is Michiganders’ primary mode of consuming cannabis, concerns about sharing or inhalation are leading to consumers choosing other formats.

Fluresh also has been intentional about bringing social equity to its operations. Fluresh and the Black and Brown Cannabis Guild (BBCG) sponsored the National Expungement Week Drive-Up Clinic in Grand Rapids in September to provide expungement resources for those who have been convicted of low-level crimes.

“The state is moving toward automatic expungement of marijuana crimes, but it’s very complicated,” said Chris Anderson, general counsel and chief regulatory officer for Fluresh. “Getting records expunged involves a ton of paperwork. You need a lawyer to weed through it. You need to run updated background checks … it takes time and it takes money, which is why we’ve contributed both time and money, and we continue to work with other partners in the state to push forward on that.”

Fluresh also collaborates with BBCG and LINC UP to actively recruit and retain a diverse pool of job applicants, especially those negatively impacted by the war on drugs within the 49507 ZIP code.

“Marijuana prohibition has its roots in racist policies of 100 years ago, so there’s been a disproportionate impact in Black and brown communities across the country,” Anderson said. “I think all other companies in Grand Rapids recognize this is a priority.”

Fluresh’s cannabis provisioning center is located in the heart of 49507 and is looking to hire about 100 employees from the area. Anderson said the company is uniquely positioned to have a direct positive impact on the community.

Fluresh also announced its inaugural Fluresh 5 Accelerator program, which will offer cohorts of five local businesses and entrepreneurs a series of sessions throughout the year touching on accounting, taxation, law, marketing and other important issues in starting a cannabis business.

“We’ll be able to give them hands-on experience … connection to people in the industry, to get them started,” Anderson said. “It’s a very capital-intensive industry, and without experience and connections, it can be challenging.”

All of the applicants for the first Fluresh 5 cohort are minority-owned and local to West Michigan, and 57% are women-owned.

Another entry into the arena is Exclusive Brands, an Ann Arbor-based company that opened the first adult-use dispensary in Michigan in December 2018 and recently opened in Grand Rapids for medical and recreational customers.

Narmin Jarrous, chief development officer for Exclusive Brands, agreed cannabis businesses have a role to play in ensuring Michigan’s growing industry is equitable.

“We’ve been committed to social equity, and we believe if we’re intentional about social equity, a lot of other businesspeople will want to be a part of it, too,” Jarrous said.

Besides hiring a diverse workforce, Exclusive Brands also mentors people from disenfranchised communities to help them break into the cannabis industry, as well as helps with the application process and application fees.

Jarrous also helped with the development of Michigan’s Social Equity Program, which is a provision of the Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act (MRTMA) meant to promote diverse participation in the state’s cannabis industry.

“We focus so much on legalization, and we finally got there,” Jarrous said. “I think its incredible, because people have access to cannabis and their medicine, but at the same time we’re so far behind, because people are still serving time, and others are making millions of dollars off of this industry.”

While West Michigan municipalities have been slow to roll out licensing for recreational businesses compared to other parts of the state, Jarrous said Exclusive Brands’ Grand Rapids reception has been very positive, and companies likely will always have to navigate detractors in communities where they hope to grow.

“You’ll always meet people who have some resistance to cannabis,” she said. “Ann Arbor is very accepting and liberal, but you’ll still meet people who are very fearful of this plant. I hope with our presence and continued work in Grand Rapids, more people will come to understand cannabis and how much good it does for people.”

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