A Grand Rapids dispensary that runs out a small green-painted house in the city’s southwest side has earned the state Cannabis Regulatory Agency’s highest honors for its new social equity program.
The Social Equity All-Star Program “gold” designation was awarded by the CRA executive director Andrew Brisbo to Pharmhouse Wellness owner Casey Kornoelje on Wednesday.
In 2001, Kornoelje received felony charges for illegally cultivating cannabis, which he says led to discrimination in finding a corporate job. But when Michigan voters approved cannabis legalization for adult use in 2018, the state and municipalities enacted social equity programs to help those harmed by the war on drugs get a leg up in the new legal industry through licensing discounts and other benefits.
“Unfortunately, I have a felony on my record for the cultivation, manufacture, and distribution of cannabis, which is a bit ironic, because here we stand today doing exactly that,” Kornoelje tells Metro Times. “My, the times have changed.”
To qualify for the gold level, a licensee must publish their social equity plan, their corporate spend plan, and their community reinvestment plan on the CRA website. The plan should include employment, educational or mentorship programs, monetary assistance, or training, with a dedicated percentage of the business’s annual spending going to suppliers owned by people of communities most impacted by the racism of the war on drugs. Licensees must also dedicate volunteer time to charities or nonprofits that benefit communities harmed by the war on drugs.
“With the All-Star Program, basically, it puts the onus on the operators to be more visible and transparent about exactly what their social equity programs are doing,” Kornoelje says. “We published all the information and data of our social equity program, and thankfully, and humbly, the state of Michigan identified us as a gold star recipient.”
He adds, “We are just completely honored and privileged for the award.”
To help him craft a social equity plan, Kornoelje partnered with Lynee Wells from Aligned Planning.
“She’s been doing a lot of the heavy lifting as far as implementation, neighborhood engagement, outreach, and the actual execution of some of the projects,” Kornoelje says. “I know cannabis, I know how to retail it, I know how to grow it, but I’m not an urban planner. I’m not as big into urban development. We were thankful to have some really good partnerships with professionals here in Grand Rapids to help us move our plan forward.”
As a social equity operator, Pharmhouse Wellness receives a 75% annual reduction on licensing fees, which Kornoelje has agreed to invest into the neighborhood through beautification and development projects. So far, that has included planting about 50 trees in the community, building bat boxes to help increase biodiversity, commissioning art installations along the business corridor, and a Thanksgiving turkey giveaway. Pharmhouse Wellness is also working with the Downtown Development Authority to improve pedestrian mobility in the community by building a bike lane and increasing bus stops.
“It’s something that I, as somebody who has been disadvantaged by cannabis in the past, to be able to turn those disadvantages into positives, that was something that I felt strongly about right out of the gate with the business,” Kornoelje says.
The Social Equity All-Star designation comes at a time of hardship in Michigan’s cannabis industry, especially for small operators. While many products have been seeing price inflation in recent months, a growing number of cannabis growers in Michigan has led to a downward trend on the price of marijuana, leading some companies to lay employees off and shut down facilities.
But Kornoelje says it’s important to him to continue to make social equity a priority, despite the changes in the industry.
When he opened Pharmhouse Wellness in 2020, they were one of a few retailers in Grand Rapids. Now there are about 20 other operators in the city. It also opened at a time of federal economic stimulus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and those funds have since dried up.
“Both from a federal monetary standpoint, and a competition standpoint, the retail environment has changed significantly,” he says. “However, the commitment to social equity has remained steadfast. And that is something I hope to continue to do, regardless of the economic headwinds and trends that are out there, because it’s important to me, and it’s important to the company. I don't know what the future of it looks like … but I think that regardless, there’s got to be a steadfast commitment to social equity, in whatever form that may be.”
Pharmhouse Wellness is located at 831 Wealthy St. SW, Grand Rapids; 616-551-0040; pharmhousewellness.com.