Now that recreational marijuana is legal, Michigan’s home-grown cannabis companies are scaling up — and getting vertically integrated 

click to enlarge Common Citizen Retail Store exterior.

CNW Group/Common Citizen

Common Citizen Retail Store exterior.

Before Michigan legalized recreational marijuana, you could say much of its cannabis industry was vertically integrated, if not quite by the books. But as the state gets ready for recreational pot shops to open next year, local cannabis companies are scaling up to get ready for an industry that experts believe is on track to outpace even Colorado's.

North Cannabis Company, which launched last month under the Green Peak Innovations umbrella, is billing itself as Michigan's first 100 percent Michigan-made wholesale marijuana brand of its scale.

"What we're saying is that we're the first comprehensive, made-in-Michigan, full product line line for cannabis," says CEO Jeff Radway. "North Cannabis company is everything from vape cartridges to a full line of extracts, edibles, pre-rolls, and premium flower. So it's really soup-to-nuts in the cannabis space."

Radway says North Cannabis Company plans to sell to 14 different dispensaries throughout the state.

"Our vision for the brand is essentially to bring premium quality products to consumers and patients in Michigan," he says. "You know, Michigan has a history of 'going up north,' if you will."

Green Peak Innovations was established in 2016. Radway says it now employs just under 200 people, but could grow as high as 400 by the end of the year. It has a cultivation and processing facility in Dimondale, and another smaller cultivation center in Lansing.

Radway says he's anticipating sales to grow as stigmas surrounding cannabis use dissipate.

"Obviously the majority of people in Michigan think it's fine to use recreationally," he says, in reference to last November's election, in which Proposal 1 passed with nearly 56 percent of the vote. "I think that's a natural outcome of people having friends or family or other contacts that have used it medicinally since 2008, and, and being exposed to the relief that it brings registered patients."

"I would equate it similar to almost like red wine, right?" he says. "Like, there's research that shows that a, a glass of red wine used in moderation can have some health benefits to cardiovascular systems in particular. But people also drink red wine just to relax and enjoy themselves, too."

The rebranding of marijuana from illegal substance to medicine and now to a legalized product is one that Common Citizen, another on-the-up Michigan cannabis brand, is addressing. The brand, which is under the parent company of Michigan Pure Med, opened its first retail store in Flint at 310 S. Averill Ave. CEO Michael Elias says the company expects to open five retail locations by the end of the year, and another five by the end of 2020. Construction of a 1.2 million-square-foot manufacturing and R&D headquarters is underway in Marshall, which Elias estimates will create 400 jobs over the next five years. To his knowledge, Michigan Pure Med is the state's largest marijuana license holder, and he says they are conforming to GMP, or Good Manufacturing Practices, even though the state has not yet required that, anticipating the day that marijuana is decriminalized on the federal level and cannabis brands can go national and international.

But Elias's vision for the brand is to be intimate. That's apparent in the name of the brand, which he says is aimed at "common" everyday people. Following the lead of the Flint flagship, Common Citizen's retail stores will have coffee shops on site. Its employees are referred to as "citizen advisors," not "budtenders." And he has developed a "human-centered" approach to help the cannabis-curious connect with products.

Common Citizen has developed a color-coded "Citizen Code Book" that breaks down what terms like cannabinoids and terpenes are in layman's terms. It also divides consumers into four "need states," rather than relying on the cannabis industry's esoteric (and at times goofy) names for strains. There's purple, or "unplug," for solo "getaways and disappearing acts." Yellow is for "time to shine," partying. Blue is "sweet relief," or touted more for its healing properties in treating aches and pains. And red is "daily dose," which focuses more on a micro-dosing or wellness angle.

Elias says this approach stems from his background in healthcare, running a hospital. "Common Citizen is really a purpose-driven, human-centric brand," he says. "All our packaging speaks 'human.' You know, we like the 'OG Cush' and the 'Pugs Breath' and the 'Han Solo Burger,' but most people on the fringes don't know what that means. So we are really trying to lead with a little bit of more love and understanding and education, which is what most patients need coming in."

Elias says he has already seen it work. The other day, while at his Flint location's coffee shop, he saw a middle-aged woman walk in. "She said she heard about us on the local news," he says. "She came in, and she looked pretty scared walking in."

Elias says after one of the store's "citizen advisors" spoke with her for an hour, she returned the next day with her 22-year-old daughter.

"I could hear her telling her daughter, who was very reluctant to walking in, 'They're going to help you. They hold your hand here. They show you stuff,'" he says. "I looked at her, and I said that this is why we're in business. It gave me goosebumps."

"People don't buy what you do," he says. "They buy why you do it."

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