Posted on February 22, 2019
Representatives from a marijuana dispensary that will soon open up in El Dorado visited City Hall Wednesday to answer questions from City Council members and Mayor Veronica Smith-Creer.
The dispensary license-holders were announced earlier this month by the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission. The commission chose to spread the dispensaries across eight regions in the state; Union County fell into Zone 8, which also includes Sevier, Howard, Little River, Miller, Pike, Hempstead, Lafayette, Nevada, Columbia, Clark, Dallas, Ouachita and Calhoun counties.
Four dispensary licenses were awarded for each of the eight zones. Verano Holdings received a license to open a dispensary in El Dorado under the name Noah’s Ark.
Based out of Chicago, Verano Holdings is a start-up corporation that owns 72 dispensaries in the United States; they also own and operate cultivation facilities across the country.
Wes McGowan, vice president of real estate for Verano, visited El Dorado Wednesday to check out the dispensary site and meet some members of the community.
“My role is surrounding, as we enter new markets around the country, finding the appropriate locations and working hand-inhand with departments like yours to find something that’s going to be properly zoned, set back from any sensitive uses,” McGowan said. “Just kind of interfacing and making sure that we form a good relationship with the city itself and the community surrounding it.”
McGowan said the location the company originally planned to open the dispensary, at 3955 Mt. Holly Road, fell through; they are currently considering the building at 2511 Calion Road, which is the former location of Sassy’s and For Pet’s Sake.
McGowan was in El Dorado to meet with Lisa Owens, owner of the site. Owens said no paperwork has been signed yet, but she is looking forward to completing the sale.
“It was private for a while, I didn’t even know who was interested in it for a while,” Owens said. “I have cancer and this is my fourth year to have cancer and so when I had the opportunity to sell the location, it was a blessing to me, because I’ve been needing to get rid of it for years but I just haven’t been physically or mentally able to pursue it.”
McGowan noted that the property sits on about an acre of land. He said they plan to build a large, handicapped accessible parking lot behind the dispensary so that traffic will not get backed up in the area due to customers.
Council members asked questions and brought up concerns for McGowan to address when they met Wednesday. Several council members were concerned that the license had been awarded to an out-of-state company rather than one based locally.
McGowan tried to assuage those worries by letting the Council know that Verano intends to hire locally and have a general manager from south Arkansas run the operation.
“We would absolutely hire from within the community, that’s very important to us,” he said. “We’re not going to fly in someone like myself from Chicago to come run this; [staff] would be hired locally.”
McGowan said about eight full-time jobs will be created by the dispensary; he said there could be up to 12 jobs altogether, though that number could change based on the dispensary’s hours of operations, which he said he would work with the Council to set.
He said the company does not hire felons, adding that the policy is an industry standard. The company will drug test and perform background checks on applicants. He said Verano will be looking for people who are passionate about the product and patients and noted that the company’s hiring practices promote diversity.
Ward 3 council members Andre Rucks and Willie McGhee both expressed concern with marijuana prohibition, which has historically led many marijuana users into prison, particularly people of color.
“I’ve seen how the judicial system has disproportionately affected minorities … A lot of my brothers and sisters are locked up in prison for pennies of marijuana and I just see y’all come in town, making money in our state for the same thing my friends are in jail for,” Rucks said. “It’s like y’all are going to get all the money but we’ve gotten the lower end of the stick. That’s just a perception where I come from.”
Rucks asked McGowan if Verano took steps to invest back into their communities, specifically whether they might invest in criminal justice reform. McGowan said the company wanted to follow local officials’ guidance on the matter and would be happy to hear any suggestions from the community for ways they can get involved.
“First of all, we absolutely like to participate however we can in community programs, in terms of donations and various things; we would look to your guidance, the Council, as to where those donations would be best used,” McGowan said. “We’ve got a lot of commitment to diverse hiring practices, both female and minorities. … I would say that we’re more than willing to have the conversation and start that out, because it’s a cause (ending marijuana prohibition) that we do feel strongly about.”
McGowan said the company emphasizes community outreach and education. He said they will be glad to organize information sessions where the community can express their concerns and ask questions.
He also highlighted Verano’s uniformity. He said all of the company’s 72 dispensaries look about the same, describing them as looking like doctor’s offices. He said the company avoids using bright neon signs to draw customers, instead focusing on being discreet and professional.
“[The Calion Road location] is the best option we have here,” McGowan said. “People are always surprised at how formal everything is … It doesn’t feel like you’re doing a, quote, unquote drug deal.”
Rice was still concerned about his ward’s residents’ reactions to the dispensary.
“It may be the best for y’all, but I’m not sure it’s best for the neighborhood,” Rice replied.
Several council members expressed concern over the facility’s security. McGowan said that in addition to a state of the art security system that will be installed, Verano employs a security guard at each of their dispensaries.
Additionally, dispensary workers will be required to store all marijuana products each night in an inner room within the building, which will act essentially as a safe, McGowan said. They will re-stock the sales floor each morning before the dispensary opens.
“It’s a very uniform brand and as a highend lifestyle brand, we want it to be an inviting, welcoming experience that doesn’t feel like you’re doing something illegal when you go in there,” McGowan said.
Only medical marijuana card holders will be allowed into the dispensary. McGowan said only four to six people will be allowed on the sales floor at any time; other customers will have to wait in a waiting room until the floor has cleared.
Ward 2 council member Judy Ward asked about the dispensary’s name; when McGowan answered “Noah’s Ark,” the council chambers erupted with chatter as council members tried to tell him that a day care center in town is also called Noah’s Ark.
McGowan said Verano is not married to the name; he said an update will come soon on a new name for the dispensary. Most Verano dispensaries are called Zen Leaf; the El Dorado dispensary may be re-named that as well, McGowan said.
“We would prefer to change it and have looked into changing it to Zen Leaf, which is our primary dispensary name,” he said. “I’m very glad to know that there is a day care named that, that’s not a mix up that we would like to have happen.”
Ward 1 council member Billy Blann asked if the dispensary would carry Arkansas-grown products. McGowan said that in addition to store-branded products the company will buy locally grown marijuana to sell.
Per state law, the dispensary will only accept cash; McGowan said there will be an ATM on site. He said the dispensary will carry “any method of ingesting the substance,” including flower (the marijuana plant matter), edibles, oil and extract, among others.
He said about 40 percent of Verano employees at the headquarters in Chicago have medical marijuana cards. He said the company works to erase the stigma around marijuana and its medicinal uses that has come with the drug’s prohibition.
“The elderly community … most of the ailments that – I’m not sure what the Arkansas list is, but I’m assuming its pretty similar to the Illinois one – are those that are affecting the elderly community,” he said. “It’s just a total game changer for mobility and pain management. You don’t have to take a cocktail of pills every day.”
McGowan said Verano chose El Dorado for their dispensary because of its central location in south Arkansas. He also referenced an opioid crisis that has hit the region, saying having legal marijuana available locally may help to stem opioid abuse.
“In Illinois, there’s a bill recently passed where if you’re prescribed an opioid by your doctor, that very same day you can get your medical [marijuana] card, whereas it used to take three, four months and that is such a slippery slope when you’re dealing with opioids. That three or four months can be a lifechanging time,” he said. “We have seen dramatic changes in people. All the doctors that we work with are reporting that they’re not having to use these opioids as much. … This is a much better alternative that we really feel strongly about.”
According to the Arkansas Department of Health, in fiscal year 2018, between 46 and 147 medical marijuana cards were prescribed to people in Union County, more than any surrounding counties. Meg Mirivel, public information director for the Arkansas Department of Health, said over 7,200 cards have been approved in the state so far.
McGowan said representatives from Verano will visit El Dorado again soon. He said the company hopes to see the dispensary open by fall, but it may take a bit longer before the facility is ready for customers.
For more information about the company, visit their website at verano. holdings.
Caitlan Butler can be reached at 870-862-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.