After the state Supreme Court struck down a voter-approved medical cannabis initiative and a reluctant governor signed a medical cannabis bill into law last year, Mississippi celebrated the opening of its medical cannabis market last week.
Leanne Penn, co-owner of The Cannabis Company, a Brookhaven, Miss.-based dispensary that made the first medical cannabis sale in the state Jan. 25, describes opening day as “hectic” with plenty of technical issues.
Penn, who owns and operates the store with her husband, Mitch, says seeing the market come to fruition and finally bringing medicine to Mississippi’s patients justifies the growing pains.
“It’s a lot of hard work. It’s a lot of sweat. It’s a lot of frustration. It’s a lot of roadblocks,” she says. “But when that customer walks in that door and looks at you and walks out of there, and tells you that they’re so glad that you’re here and that they appreciate what you do so much, all that frustration, all those roadblocks, all that to get to this point just melts away. It makes it absolutely worth it.”
Penn suffers from ulcerative colitis, anxiety and depression, and is a medical cannabis patient herself. Passionate about medical cannabis, she and her husband decided several years ago that they would get into the industry when they retired, should the state authorize a medical cannabis program.
Penn helped gather signatures for Initiative 65, a medical cannabis legalization measure that voters approved in the 2020 election but was ultimately overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Gov. Tate Reeves then signed a medical cannabis bill into law in February 2022 to restore the will of the people.
Melvin Robinson, executive director of the Mississippi Cannabis Trade Association (MSCTA), also helped efforts to put Initiative 65 before voters, and now leads the organization to unite the legal industry in Mississippi. Members of the association help educate the public, patients, lawmakers and regulatory bodies on medical cannabis, and the group lives by the motto: “advocacy, education and community.”
“We want to be sure that patients have access, a robust program to choose from, and businesses can make money,” Robinson says. “That’s what we do.”
The MSCTA helped spread the word that The Cannabis Company would celebrate its grand opening last week, a moment that Penn and her husband worked tirelessly toward for years.
“It’s been a long two years, a lot of struggle, we hit a lot of roadblocks, but we were able to overcome them,” Penn says. “We bought a building. They overturned [Initiative] 65. The Legislature doubled the footage [that a dispensary must maintain] between churches, schools and day cares. We couldn’t use our building anymore, so we had to find another location. We found another location. And then it took months to try to get the lease worked out because we were a cannabis company. We finally got that worked out. We did the buildout ourselves. Every screw, paint—me and my husband did it ourselves. So, we’ve got a lot of time and sweat equity in it, for sure, because it’s a passion for us.”
Open for Business
Penn says she and her husband aimed to create a space where patients feel at home, that didn’t feel like a pharmacy or medical facility, while complying with state regulations. She describes the dispensary as “country elegance,” with much of the décor made from recycled wood.
The Cannabis Company made its first sale to a local Brookhaven resident who tried several treatments for her various health conditions before finding relief in cannabis.
“It was very exciting to make that first sale, for sure, and see the smile on that patient’s face because she’s been waiting so long that she couldn’t believe it was really happening, that she was coming in here and buying cannabis legally as an alternative to something else,” Penn says. “We couldn’t have had an any better first patient … other than her, just because she was the prime example of why we are doing what we do to give the patient an alternative to the pharmaceuticals when the pharmaceuticals aren’t helping.”
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Penn says The Cannabis Company has seen a steady flow of patients since opening day, and many patients have thanked her and her husband for providing them not only medicine, but also hope.
“I think the word ‘hope’ is the word I’ve heard the most since this all started,” she says. “It’s been great.”
Robinson is also excited that Mississippi’s patients now have access to an alternative form of health care, especially in the wake of the ongoing opioid crisis.
“Mississippi doesn’t have the best health care,” he says. “We have people in a lot of areas that need help. We’re just coming off a large … opiate overdose year, according to the Department of Health. So, having that alternative form of health care is really great.”
The cannabis industry will also help boost Mississippi’s economy, Robinson adds.
“We look at cannabis as a commodity,” he says. “We understand that people use it as a medical product, but there is so much more that we can do with it. Mississippi is an agricultural state, where we’ve had so much success with that, and this crop, we can use it to become a new cash crop here.”
The state had licensed 154 medical cannabis dispensaries by Dec. 30, 2022, according to data from the Mississippi Department of Health, and Penn says there are roughly a dozen medical cannabis dispensaries currently open across the state, with more expected to open in the coming weeks.
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The state had approved 1,321 patients by Dec. 30, and Penn estimates that the total has climbed to roughly 1,900 since then. She says The Cannabis Company has served approximately 250 patients since opening Jan. 25.
While the patient count continues to climb, Penn and Robinson both cite it as an ongoing concern in the market.
“Right now, I would say the biggest challenge is making sure people understand how to get cards, understand what they can do, understand the process—just simple stuff like that,” Robinson says. “We’ve never had this program here before and people are just getting used to it.”
To help boost the patient count, Penn and her husband helped many patients submit their applications to enroll in Mississippi’s medical cannabis program before The Cannabis Company opened its doors. Even now, the dispensary receives phone calls from patients seeking help with the application process.
“I keep getting calls and I may have to get a part-time person that will just do that and can make an appointment and have the patient go through [the application process], because if the patients don’t get certified, we don’t sell anything, and they don’t get help,” Penn says.
Another potential issue, Robinson says, is local municipalities opting out of Mississippi’s medical cannabis program, a practice allowed under the law.
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“Reefer Madness [is] still down here [and we’re] still dealing with municipalities that don’t really want to do anything with [cannabis],” he says. “I’m our lobbyist this year, and just speaking with people, … I have never understood trying to convince someone to make money. It’s like, your municipality needs money, this is a great new industry, you have the population to support it, you can do this, and people are just like, ‘No.’”
With time, however, Penn and Robinson anticipate that many of the growing pains will subside for both patients and businesses.
“It’s gotten easier for me the past few days, just getting into a routine and knowing what to expect,” Penn says. “But it’s fast-paced and you’re busy all the time. It’s nonstop. Cannabis entrepreneurs never sleep. They work seven days if they have to, to get products in the store.”
The Cannabis Company currently carries products from two cultivators, Mockingbird Cannabis and River Remedy, with plans to bring on a third cultivation partner in the coming days.
Penn and her husband are the only two budtenders, which they call “cannabis clinicians,” and the only other employee is a front desk host who checks patients in.
“We want to watch our money so we can be here for the long haul,” she says. “If we have to work extra to get there, then that’s what we’re doing. I’m hoping with long-term goals we get to add some more budtenders in here and add to our facility and potentially look, in two to four years, to adding another [retail] location in another town, depending on how many people stay, how many there are, how saturated the market’s going to be when license renewals come up again in June or July.”
Penn also has her eye on a processing license, which she would use to create female-focused cannabis products.
But for now, Penn and her husband want to set an example for other retailers in Mississippi’s medical cannabis market.
“When Mitch and I started this, we said … we wanted The Cannabis Company to set the mark for what a dispensary looks like in this industry and be compliant and help the patients … and show that it can be done, and it can be done correctly, and it can be done successfully,” she says. “We have determined that any product that we put in our store, we want to tour the [cultivation] facility, we want to meet the growers, we want to meet the owners, we want to see the product getting grown, processed and packaged. What we’ve got coming and what we have here so far, we’ve done that, so we know what kind of products are in our store that we’re putting out to the patients.”