Armed with an expanded parking lot, additional registers and a well-trained staff, Jerry Millen was prepared to transition The Greenhouse, his medical cannabis dispensary in Walled Lake, to Michigan’s adult-use cannabis market in March. The real curveball, he says, was Michigan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was rolled out the week after The Greenhouse launched adult-use sales.
“Right now, we’re all curbside, fortunately or unfortunately,” Millen says.
This is just the latest chapter of an industry that he has watched evolve for more than a decade. Millen began working with medical cannabis patients about 13 years ago, when he started attending compassion club meetings in Michigan. After clearing up some misconceptions with the other members of the group (“They thought I was an undercover cop in their compassion club meeting,” Millen recalls), he immersed himself in the industry, received his caregiver license and started growing cannabis for five patients.
When lawmakers began debating the Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act (MMFLA), which ultimately passed in 2016 to create a regulated medical cannabis industry in the state, Millen went to the state capital to meet with key representatives to help get the legislation across the finish line.
“There was a little girl named Bella and her mother, Ida, and honestly, without them, I feel there would be no cannabis industry in Michigan,” Millen says. “Bella … used [cannabis] regularly to help control her seizures. Her mother was gracious enough to help the cause and went around lobbying with us to the state reps to help us get these bills passed, and she went on with the media about the attributes of cannabis and the medical purposes. I worked on that for about four years.”
During this time, Millen also bought a small store in Walled Lake, which had opted in to hosting cannabis businesses, in order to realize his dream of operating a dispensary.
“Before there were state licenses, there were local licenses, and I was granted a local license for two years before the state licenses became available,” he says.
Although two other medical dispensaries were operating in Walled Lake at the time under the local licensing structure, the stores had been raided by the county sheriff, so Millen chose not to open his storefront until he was granted a license from the state.
“I waited, and I still think it’s the right move … because I’m the only dispensary in Walled Lake right now,” he says. “The other two went away—they couldn’t get licensed.”
The Greenhouse opened for medical sales in February 2019 and transitioned to the adult-use market in March of this year, right as the coronavirus crisis reached the U.S.
Before the pandemic, Millen bought a parking lot adjacent to the dispensary, which expanded the dispensary’s parking from 15 to 80 available spots. When COVID-19 hit and the state forced dispensaries to transition to curbside-only sales, The Greenhouse began serving roughly 800 cars every day, and the additional parking became critical to the company’s success.
“Thank goodness I bought that when I did because otherwise, right now, I would probably have to shut down because I wouldn’t be able to handle the influx of patients,” Millen says.
He also renovated the dispensary to add an additional 800 square feet to the building, which allowed him to expand the number of registers from six to 14. Millen implemented new point-of-sale software as part of the dispensary’s adult-use expansion to keep transactions running smoothly.
“No one wants to wait in line for hours for weed—that’s crazy,” he says. “A lot of my competitors, on their opening days, people were waiting for eight hours outside for service because most people had six registers. … We got the expansion done and we were able to see 1,200 people our first day of rec, and the longest wait was 15 minutes because we had so many registers. People were moving.”
Then, a week later, The Greenhouse made the transition to curbside sales, which has its own set of challenges.
“None of the software platforms were ready for the influx of customers,” Millen says. “We’re so busy that we have to pause orders. We have to systematically look at our parking lot, look at how many orders are in, and go, ‘OK, let’s pause ordering for 15 minutes to let everybody catch up.’ … I’m not complaining by any means—I’m glad the governor allowed us to do curbside, but it just makes things a bit more interesting.”
The next challenge, he adds, will be reopening the dispensary for in-store sales. Michigan’s governor has announced a slow re-opening of the state, and it remains to be seen how this will impact dispensaries.
As he did in the early days of Michigan’s medical cannabis market, Millen is again taking a cautious and calculated approach to re-opening The Greenhouse.
“Right now, I would rather stay curbside until we can figure it out,” he says.
Millen purchased plexiglass that matches the interior of the dispensary, and he plans to install it before allowing patients and customers inside the store.
“Now I’m looking at cutting the store in half, running curbside out of the back, and the part that was medical-only before would be a mix of med and rec,” he adds. “That way, the people who want to come in can, and the ones who don’t can stay outside. It’s challenging because I don’t know what the governor is going to throw at us.”
Curbside sales were illegal until the COVID-19 crisis, but Millen has always advocated for curbside pickup to help patients who struggle with mobility issues. Now, he is lobbying with the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association to permanently legalize curbside sales in the state.
In the meantime, Millen and his team are focused on providing excellent customer service to both sides of the market. These efforts include a return policy that allows customers to return any product if they are not completely satisfied.
“I always tell my employees, if somebody has a problem with a product, take it back,” Millen says. “If the vendors don’t take it back, we eat it.”
The Greenhouse has also dedicated the first few hours of operation on Sundays to its patients.
“The patients are the VIPs—they need it for specific reasons,” Millen says. “Rec customers can wait a little while. My goal is to make sure that the patients are always taken care of first.”
Looking ahead, Millen is excited to watch the market grow, and for adult-use customers to discover the medical uses of cannabis.
“There are a lot of rec users who are finding medical use in cannabis, especially during this pandemic,” he says. “A lot of people are calling about being stressed out, [they have] anxiety and they can’t sleep. We recommend products to them and they work most of the time, and if they don’t, we switch up products for people. I’m not just trying to push weed out the door. I’m trying to help people.”
Millen also hopes that Michigan’s adult-use market will help destigmatize cannabis by allowing more people to experience the industry firsthand.
“You’re going to see people turning away from alcohol, turning toward cannabis, and you’re going to see people who you didn’t think would use cannabis use it,” he says. “Eventually, it’s going to be socially accepted.”
Millen would eventually like to operate four or five dispensaries in Michigan and may even consider opening a cultivation facility in the future, as the market grows.
“The industry is here to stay,” he says. “I’m trying to create something that my children can move into and take over 10 years from now. »
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