Interview: Modern Medicinal Cannabis on the East Coast

Kyle Swartz

February 25, 2019

The spread of legal cannabis across America’s east coast has been led by the medicinal movement. Beyond setting groundwork for recreational laws that follow, medicinal has also helped change attitudes towards the drug as the east coast trails behind the west in terms of cannabis acceptance.

But that’s changing. Thanks to modern medicinal businesses like The Botanist, stigmas have gradually decreased on the east coast, so that people see cannabis less as a social threat now, and more as a benefit for patients in need. To talk about the medicinal movement, and east coast cannabis, we recently caught up with Harris Damashek, CMO of Acreage Holdings, whose portfolio includes The Botanist brand chain of dispensaries.

Cannabis Regulator: As a cannabis company operating on the east coast, do you ever feel like there’s a culture gap between here and out west?

Harris Damashek: I think across the country, as we see 94% of people support medicinal use, and 66% support adult use [i.e.: recreational], that’s a lot of will and desire that more and more people have in common. At the same time, the west coast has had a cannabis-driven culture for many, many years now, so there is a little bit of a knowledge gap between the east and west coast there.

CR: What’s the customer experience like at one of your dispensaries?

HD: We’re focused on making the experience heavily concentrated on educating consumers. We’re trying to bring people closer to the plant and its benefits. You have to remember that a lot of people have never been in this category before. Now that mainstream consumers are coming along, we’re trying to provide an easy transition for them.

CR: How does that happen?

HD: From a business standpoint, it starts with making sure that our staff — our dispensary technicians and, in some states, our pharmacists — are trained to best-in-class standards. They all undergo coursework on patient understanding, empathy, issues, ailments and how to make sure they’re matching patients with the right type of products.

From a customer standpoint, we really underscore education. What our education we can offer differs in every state, in alignment with state-legalized programs. For instance, in New York, we offer Cannabis 101, teaching patients about what are terpenes, what are cannabinoids, how they can positively help patients, and what patients might want to avoid.

Each location has what we call a ‘seed bar’. This is a multiuse space where staff can provide customers with intimate consultations. In states where legal, growers and producers will also use this space to show their products. We’ve even held ‘cooking with cannabis’ classes there.

CR: How do we defeat lingering stigmas towards cannabis and its users?

HD: Mainstream America is just now coming online with the cannabis category. Lots of stereotypes still exist.

Countering that can begin with the businesses. With certain stores out west, the experience can feel off-putting. Like a pawnshop, with bouncers out front. We spent a lot of time visiting more than 200 dispensaries across seven or eight states and took in the best practices that we saw. We try to make the shopping experience feel as normal as possible, like a jewelry or cosmetics store, so that people can feel comfortable. Stores shouldn’t feel illicit.

“We try to make the shopping experience feel as normal as possible, like a jewelry or cosmetics store, so that people can feel comfortable. Stores shouldn’t feel illicit.” — Harris Damashek, CMO of Acreage Holdings, whose portfolio includes The Botanist, pictured above.

There’s another side to that, too. Sometimes, budtenders out west can also have what feels like too much knowledge. They’ll overwhelm you with all the strains and varietals and other options, and make you feel silly.

We want to remove all stigmas so that people can focus on their experience. People should never feel embarrassed about pursuing greater health in life.

CR: What sort of medicinal products do you offer?

HD: We have a number of products, which are all pretty well regulated. Tinctures, capsules, vape cartridges, high-THC, low-THC, high-CBD, low-CBD, and more — all available depending on the ailment.

If you have trouble sleeping, then maybe we might recommend something with more THC. Or we might recommend more CBD if you’re dealing with chronic pain. Or we might suggest a mix — it all depends on the ailment.

CR: Does the CBD part of the federal farm bill passed late in 2018 affect your business?

HD: It affects the entire industry.

At first there was a lot of feeling of exuberance. But quickly the FDA came in and tried to regulate it. Now there’s a lot of uncertainty in the area. I was really hopeful at first, and still am, but that that has been tempered a lot about the uncertainty of its legality nationally.

CR: What are your patient demos?

HD: It’s a real mix. People in their 20s all the way up to their 80s and 90s. Some people have very outwardly visible medical conditions, while other times they will look like standard retail customers. The age really ranges, as does the social status. It really is a reflection of our society at large. Now that cannabis has been more destigmatized, and portrayed positively in the news, it has quickly changed the hearts and minds of many people.

Even in adult-use markets, a Harris Poll found that more than ¾ of people are looking to use cannabis for reasons other than to get high. About 75% of people are using cannabis to treat pain, while 70% want help relaxing or dealing with anxiety. Even in adult-use markets, we’re finding that ¾ of people are self-medicating. That’s something we should be supporting, as it’s clearly very helpful to people in their every-day lives.

CR: Any there any trends that concern you?

HD: In another poll, 50% of women reported that they were unwilling to go to a dispensary because they did not like its environment. We want to make both men and women feel confident in their experience at a dispensary.

Kyle Swartz is editor of Cannabis Regulator. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz or Instagram @cheers_magazine. Read his recent piece Oregon Suffers Cannabis Growing Pains.

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