MedicateOH recently talked with Kate Nelson, General Manager of Ohio for Acreage Holdings, formerly President of Greenleaf Apothecaries, about her journey from University of Akron criminal justice student with a passion for cannabis reform to her current role heading up The Botanist, five of Ohio’s first legal cannabis dispensaries.
Pursuing Her Passion for the Plant
Kate’s passion for policy reform sprouted during college. “All throughout my undergraduate career, I was really fascinated by medical cannabis legislation.” From a policy perspective specifically, Kate observed a major disconnect between the federal government’s ban on cannabis and the laws she saw more and more states passing. In states across the country, laws were being amended to make this plant more accessible to patients who needed it as medicine.
Shortly after she graduated, Kate planned to continue onto graduate school to pursue studying cannabis legislation, but her life took an unexpected turn. She returned home to help care for her grandmother who was suffering with stage 4 bone cancer.
During the worst of her grandmother’s illness, Kate discussed with the oncologist about whether cannabis might be helpful. It frustrated Kate to see that even her grandmother’s care team couldn’t consider it due to lack of research about cannabis and because it wasn’t legal in Ohio at the time. To boot, if they lived just a few hundred miles north in Michigan, this therapy would be available.
Grief Sparks Anger, And a Plan
Kate’s grandmother died in hospice without access to a potential comfort medicine. “It was awful. I mean, it was absolutely miserable…the woman that I knew withered away before my very eyes. The morphine slurred her speech and… and none of it was good. When she finally passed away, she hadn’t eaten for, like, 11 days. And I was just really angry.”
Kate channeled her grief over losing her grandmother back into her passion for cannabis reform in Ohio. “A few weeks after her funeral is when the Ohio Senate announced they were going to go on a tour for medical cannabis to see if people in Ohio wanted cannabis here.”
Kate felt fueled by the announcement. “If I had any say in it, there wouldn’t be another family in Ohio that got the same answer that I did.” So, she submitted public testimony and talked to every person that she knew that could possibly submit public testimony. When House Bill 523 passed, she had been contemplating going back to school. And her then-boyfriend (now husband) suggested they stick with their passion and pursue careers in cannabis. “I think that we should start a cannabis business and I think you should run it,” he said. So they began to formulate a plan to apply for one of 24 cultivator’s licenses up for grabs.
Applying and Waiting
As Ohio’s rules for their medical marijuana program were coming together, Kate knew it was going to be really challenging. They gathered more information, went to conferences, read books, and sold every belonging they had of value to try and raise the $20,000 needed to allow them to even compete in the application process that Ohio was designing. “We wrote a business plan on my kitchen table on New Year’s Eve,” recalls Kate. “I’ll never forget it.”
Their attorney introduced them to David Neundorfer and Oscar Hackett, who became the first partners and built upon the plan and the vision. “We took a leap of faith and we trusted them and partnered with them to raise capital and they brought me on as the first employee.” The application (now for a Level I cultivator license, processing license, and five dispensaries) became her responsibility. At the time, she was the community liaison. Over the next six months, she worked her way up to director of community engagement as they awaited the status of their applications.
The dispensaries got approved, but the cultivation license didn’t, scaring off key investors. At this point, Greenleaf’s small team considered whether to enter into a management agreement with Acreage Holdings Inc., a New York City cannabis company which owned The Botanist brand of dispensaries in nine states. Working with a multi-state operator was yet another leap of faith for the Greenleaf team, but they believed that Acreage could provide the guidance and suggestions needed as they began to operationalize the business for the first time.
Unfortunately for Kate and her team, this relationship was something the Board of Pharmacy scrutinized very closely, and ultimately led to a 6-month delay in opening 3 of the remaining 5 Botanist locations.
First Dispensaries Open
Kate remained committed to keeping the team local once they entered into the management agreement with Acreage. “I wanted to make sure that we were still going to maintain the incredible team that we have at a local level… There were a lot of hurdles that we encountered along the way. Fortunately, we put together an amazing team who opened our Canton store on January 19, the first day of the medical marijuana sales in Ohio.”
The team opened the Wickliffe store two weeks later. By the end of 2019, all of The Botanist’s retail stores were up and allowed them to focus on their 25,000 square-foot processing facility in Middlefield, Ohio. Kate quickly found patient feedback from the stores to be a key benefit of vertical integration. “We could start to make products that were specifically what they were asking for.” We launched with RSO (Rick Simpson Oil) and tinctures. Not the highest-moving products at any rate, but these are products there’s a very clear medical need for and we felt confident about the benefit they’d have on patients.”
Finally, Greenleaf was awarded their cultivation license in December 2020 and in September released five flower strains to Ohio dispensaries.The first phenos in The Botanist’s flower line represented a variety of different cannabinoid and terpene profiles: Garlic Sundae #88, Garlic Sundae #93, Sophora #48, G33 x Zkittles Cake #08, and Mob Boss #07. Since this first release, The Botanist has provided more than 25 different phenos releases so far and counting for Ohio patients.
Shaping the Future for Cannabis in Ohio
What’s next for Greenleaf and The Botanist now that they are fully open? Kate says they will continue serving Ohio patients at their five dispensaries and producing processed products and flower that patients want. “I have the ability to spend more time in the stores to kind of keep my finger on the pulse of what people are saying, what’s working and what might not be.” A recent Department of Commerce rule change to allow for the expansion of cultivators should be a benefit to Greenleaf. “I think by allowing the expansion of cultivation square footage, we can continue to kind of establish the framework that makes sure that we’ll have the supply needed.”
Kate says she hopes that if proposed adult use legislation passes in Ohio, that the reforms will expand access while keeping medical in mind. “I’m hopeful that our regulators and legislators are willing to build on the framework that we’ve established. I think it worked out really well that Ohio had the ability to create a medical program that will serve as the foundation… If IssueThree would have originally taken shape, I think it would have been challenging for Ohio to establish an adult use program from scratch. Now we can look at what’s worked well in the medical program and make sure that we’re being thoughtful in expanding access, which is very much needed.”
To learn more about The Botanist’s five dispensaries and products, go to ShopBotanist.com/Ohio.
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