In the weeds

The cannabis industry takes root on Martha’s Vineyard.

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Cannabis leaf. — Fae Kontje-Gibbs

Some people diffuse lavender oil. Others might steep chamomile or valerian root tea. For me, cannabis is my ticket to a deep sleep.

I think I’m allowed to say that here.

Nine years after its legalization in Massachusetts, the cannabis industry has yet to fully arrive on Martha’s Vineyard. But after a unique set of obstacles hurdled mostly by Geoff Rose, it looks to be coming soon (and possibly within weeks). We thought it useful to offer this primer on the plant, its benefits, and where the business rollout stands. And because cannabis is still federally illegal, and the Vineyard is only accessible via federal waters and airways, this community is literally and figuratively on an island as far as navigating the twists and turns of the nascent industry.

So let’s talk about it. If you’re over 21, the legal age for consumption in Massachusetts, there’s really nothing that should be shameful or stigmatized around using the plant — whether it’s for something specific like sleep, or just because you like the way it makes you feel.

Cannabis can alleviate all sorts of ailments: It can help with chronic pain; can serve as a muscle relaxer; can stimulate appetite; reduce inflammation; treat seizures, insomnia, addiction; and help alleviate depression and anxiety. Why? Because of cannabinoids — THC, CBD, etc. — which when activated through heating, vaping, smoking, cooking, cause a reaction in which the cannabinoid compounds bind to receptors that are already in our bodies, unlocking the plant’s many benefits.

Depending on the strain (there are more than 1,000), its subspecies (indica, sativa, or ruderalis), and its array of cannabinoids (there are more than 100), each plant has its own unique makeup. There are also many different ways to consume (inhalation, ingestion, tinctures, oils), with each method providing its own host of particular effects. You can tailor your cannabis experience to whichever therapy, or nontherapy, you’re after.

Massachusetts voters came to a consensus on cannabis in 2012, legalizing the plant for medical use, and then for recreational use, or adult use, in 2016. Voters plucked the plant out of the depths of its historically stigmatized, illegal “underground” market, and asserted its place as an everyday commodity that people can buy, gift, grow, and enjoy.

Since its legalization, more than 200 medical and recreational dispensaries have begun operating in Massachusetts. It’s a booming business, and last month the Cannabis Control Commission reported that since their debut in 2018, recreational shops have now sold more than $1.5 billion of pot products.

If you’re ever set foot in one of these stores, you know it’s a highly regulated experience. You often have to make an appointment ahead of time, and must present an ID in sort of a “holding room”-type entrance. You’re buzzed in, and typically paired with an employee or “budtender,” who guides you through what’s available, helping match you to the right product.

If you’re after this experience here on Martha’s Vineyard, we’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting close, and the finish line is in sight. There are, of course, mixed reactions about an industry like this finding roots on an Island like this. And like many other communities, the Vineyard can be resistant to change. But at the end of the day, business is business. And when it comes to cannabis, there are not only economic gains to be had for the Island community (towns can receive up to 3 percent in taxes on adult-use purchases), but also added workforce, and — remember, since this stuff is medicine — access to another health option.

If you’ve been following this storyline at all, you know it’s a whiplash of a tale. But amid all of the uncertainties, there has been one constant — and that constant is Geoff Rose.

The cannabis shop that could 

Back when marijuana was legalized for medical use in 2012, Rose was the guy who first saw a place for the industry on Martha’s Vineyard. He launched an LLC, Patient Centric of Martha’s Vineyard, with an overarching mission “to bring safe and responsible use of cannabis to the Island community.”

The business has been divided into three components: the medical/recreational dispensary at 510 State Road in West Tisbury; the cultivation, processing, and testing site at 90 Dr. Fisher Road in West Tisbury; and the recreational shop at 15 Mechanic St. in Vineyard Haven. We’re in a unique position here on Martha’s Vineyard (and on Nantucket), because the plant is still federally illegal, and it cannot be shipped over federal waters or airways. That means all of the growing and product testing must be contained to the Island, which meant Rose had to build a cultivation site and he had to build a testing site. Rose had to navigate a set of “firsts” that arguably no other cannabis entrepreneur in the state has had to (except for possibly on Nantucket).

Rose refers to this business as his 8½-year-old child, and while it’s not yet operational as we go to press with this issue in mid-June, we can confidently say it’s getting there. He’s attended the selectmen and zoning board meetings. He’s answered to abutters. He’s solidified host-community agreements. He’s passed inspections. He even pressed the passage of a bylaw with the help of State Representatives Julian Cyr and Dylan Fernandes so product testing could be done on the Island.

One step closer, another step closer, just a few more steps … and in March 2021, Rose threw us a curveball. To the surprise of many, Rose decided to sell the West Tisbury portions of his business.

In what he calls a “hybrid agreement,” Rose will still maintain ownership of the Vineyard Haven dispensary, he said, but he is handing off the West Tisbury dispensary and processing/cultivation site to a family-owned, Connecticut-based business called Fine Fettle.

“They have the same attitude and operating philosophies as I do,” Rose said. “I thought it made sense for all parties.”

Fine Fettle owns and operates three medical marijuana dispensaries in Connecticut, one adult-use dispensary and one outdoor grow site in Massachusetts, and a processing site in Rhode Island. Prior to its work in the marijuana field, the three-generation family firm operated in addiction-treatment services and philanthropy. It expanded itself to the cannabis industry to build on that mission.

“We always think about [cannabis] from the standpoint of health and wellness,” CEO Benjamin Zachs said, adding that above all else, the company is “committed to partnering with the community.”

“We get it,” Zachs said. “There’s worry about traffic, smell, the changing fabric of a local community. We’re extremely cognizant of this.”

Rose and Zachs were introduced around this time last year through a mutual friend. After talking, Zachs said he was fascinated with the idea of operating a business in a seasonal location like the Vineyard.

“The more I talked to Geoff, the more I liked Geoff, and when we came to visit, we saw he’d built out just a really great facility,” Zachs said. “And that’s a big deal when you’re acquiring something toward the finish line to begin the race.”

Rose said the sale was both financially driven as well as to “lighten the operational responsibilities.” He said he plans to work closely with Fine Fettle, and will be buying wholesale product from them.

I asked Rose and Zachs what they thought about some of the community pushback that arose after news broke that a portion of the business was being sold to an off-Island company.

Rose played it straight: “I don’t listen to the criticism of the community of my selling the business.”

“You know, I read some of the comments,” Zachs said. “People saying, ‘This big company is coming.’ And I’m like, ‘Are we the big company people are talking about?’”

Fine Fettle has about 75 employees across three states, 68 of whom work in the dispensaries and cultivation sites. Zachs anticipates that on the Island, there will be seven to 12 full-time, year-round jobs in cultivation, and six to eight full-time, year-round jobs in the dispensary. He anticipates staffing up a bit more during the summer months to handle traffic. Zachs said he aims to hire as locally as possible, and plans to retain all or as much of Rose’s existing staff as wants to stay onboard.

Massachusetts has strict rules around the number of dispensaries that an operator can manage: a company can only have control of three. Since Fine Fettle now has two — in West Tisbury and in Rowley — it can still open one more somewhere in the state, and Zachs said he plans to. “We just haven’t picked out where yet,” he said.

And while there are operational challenges to opening a business like this on Martha’s Vineyard, Zachs seems to be focused on the positives.

“On the mainland, there can be a backlog on testing. But because our testing is done onsite and our dispensary is [a few miles] down the road, we may be able to have the freshest product available,” Zachs said. “I’m really excited that we can create products people are going to want to come visit for.”

As far as opening, the Cannabis Control Commission recently approved the change of ownership from Rose to Zachs. Now, Fine Fettle will have to schedule and pass a post-final license inspection. Zachs hopes the medical dispensary will be open for business by June, and recreational sales will go live by late-July. “There are still a few CCC elements we need to finalize,” Zachs said.

For Rose and the Vineyard Haven dispensary, which he said will be called “Island Time,” the hope is that the business will be up and running by the first week in August, as it also needs to pass additional inspections and CCC approvals.

Looking back at the last near-decade as he’s watched his child grow, Rose said, he’s proud. “Along the way you’re dealt certain cards, and you have to realize you have influences locally and from the state — you just have to continue to reassess how you move forward,” Rose said. “It hasn’t been a straight line, but I’m very pleased with what I’ve accomplished.”

“It’s my baby,” he said of the business, “And I’ve found great parents to move it forward.”

He gave the journey a few superlatives: “It’s been the most exciting, anxiety-provoking, frustrating, amazing experience in my life.”

And arguably, it’s just beginning.

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. The Island has a long and rich history of growing, exporting importing, and consuming cannabis for nearly a century.

  2. I am reminded of a quote from Albert Einstein. “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” Geoff Rose is truly one of those great spirits, a pioneer who brought a great industry to MV. The Island owes him a debt of gratitude. Thank you, Mr. Rose.

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