With Rhode Island cannabis laws now allowing recreational sale and use as of December 2022, purchasing marijuana today is as easy as grabbing a bottle of wine in a liquor store – but the landscape was much different a generation ago.
“A stigma was born when cannabis was prohibited in 1937 and matured through the war on drugs,” says Katherine Fotiades, who, with partner Mark Phillips, owns Scituate’s Skydog Farm, a community gathering spot that devotes a corner of its land to medical marijuana cultivation. “People who lived under the stigma still have a lot of fear associated with cannabis even though the laws are changing.
“And when I think about how many people – particularly Black men – went to jail because of a joint,” Fotiades continues, lamenting the racial injustices the stigma has also historically borne.
Blake Costa is the COO of Sweetspot, a recreational and medical dispensary in Exeter, and every day he meets people peripherally damaged by the war on drugs. “Our average customer is 41 years old,” says Costa. “They want to explore cannabis, but grew up in a world that stigmatized it.”
Costa finds that those customers crave one-on-one education. “A lot of dispensaries are like deli counters,” he says. “You’re a number.” But Costa went a different route, catering as much to customers who want expert, individual guidance as to those who want to get in and get out.
Sweetspot’s vibe is that of an upscale apothecary – minimalist and clean, and not a bit intimidating. Shades of soothing green are accented by brightly lit display cases and blond wood shelving filled with display packages. The walls are printed with educational information about the types of products for sale and their effects, and easy-to-read symbols denoting product strength.
Magnus Thorsson, who developed the cannabis entrepreneurship program at Johnson & Wales University, says an entrepreneur like Costa is on the right track. “Recreational legalization in Rhode Island is so new,” says Thorsson, “and competition is going to tighten.”
Thorsson says that competing on price is a race to the bottom that forces dispensaries to sell product at cost, a phenomenon seen in states that legalized recreational marijuana years ago. “I teach my students to compete on service and experience,” he says. “When you provide education to customers, they’re going to return for reasons other than price.”
Sweetspot customers have access to about 60 different products, curated largely by demand. “I like to diversify our products and let customers decide what we keep in stock,” says Costa, gesturing to Sweetspot’s merchandise wall that displays information about their consumption options: flower, distillate, edible, topical, and tincture.
As recreational consumer demand rises, both Costa and Fotiades stress the importance of policies that protect the patient channel. “If we carry the same product for medical patients and recreational customers, and we run out of the product allocated to recreational users, we can’t give them the product reserved for patients,” Costa says.
“It can take a lot of trial and error for a patient to find a strain that works for them, and we have a responsibility to make sure that they have what they need,” says Fotiades, who for years has been a caregiver for medical patients and cherishes the close relationships forged between grower and patient. However, the direct-to-consumer relationship is not allowed by laws governing recreational use. The next best thing? “Know your dispensary,” Fotiades recommends. “Ask about their inventory. Ask them how their growers operate” – exactly the kinds of questions that a dispensary like Sweetspot welcomes.
But beyond knowing your dispensary, Fotiades recommends consumers get to know the plant. “People who consume marijuana should at least try to grow it. But if you can’t grow it, visit it and get to know that plant when it’s alive. You’ll approach your use of it differently,” she says. “I consider people who grow cannabis because they’ve learned to appreciate the plant herbalists and masters of their craft.”
This spring, Fotiades and Phillips are launching a series of programming called Conscious Cannabis, which will be held in their botanical oasis, an enchanting greenhouse flooded with sunlight, soothing music, and heady fragrance. “Without proper knowledge, anything can be misused,” Fotiades says. “We teach people how to use the plant in a conscious, respectful way.”
The Conscious Cannabis programming at Skydog Farm will include free community discussions, medicine making, and growing workshops, along with a six-month intensive that invites participants to witness the plant’s entire growing cycle. “We also plan to host BYO elevate-and-create events,” says Fotiades.
Skydog Farm offers consultations for home growers and for people navigating the medical application process. During COVID, they launched a grow-your-own-at-home program. “Mark will come to your home and make site and greenhouse
recommendations; then he’ll teach you how to up-pot and feed the plants. Mid-season, he’ll make new feeding recommendations as the plants mature. And he’ll teach you how to harvest, dry, and store the flower when the season ends.”
The winter skeleton of an accidental cannabis plant rises from the center of Fotiades’ medicinal herb garden, situated in plain sight, next to the road. Cannabis plants are bred not to have seeds, yet improbably, last spring a seed found its way to the carefully tended, fertile soil and sprouted. “She popped up out in the open,” Fotiades says of the plant. “She wants to be seen.” And Fotiades took its growth as a sign that it was time for her to openly embrace her role as an
activist and educator.
In Buddhist tradition, bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who delay their entry into paradise in order to show others the way. And Fotiades sees parallels between that teaching and her own life. She believes, like the bodhisattva, her role is to educate and guide others on their path. “I help people climb the wall and show them the possibilities on the
other side,” she says.
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