Like plenty of people, Casey Kornoelje first fell in love with marijuana as an adolescent. He soon started experimenting with growing his own pot in the basement, but eventually came into what he calls "some hiccups" with law enforcement — including a felony charge for manufacturing narcotics in Grand Rapids in 2001.
"That felony charge, it stuck with me throughout my life," Kornoelje tells Metro Times
. "I did go to college and tried to get into a corporate America job, but I had a hell of a time, experiencing wage discrimination, hiring discrimination, on the job counseling and reprimanding, basically for that track record."
But Kornoelje says he didn't let that stop his interest in weed. When Michigan legalized medical marijuana, Kornoelje soon became a licensed caregiver, growing plants for patients.
"That was a struggle, but I always believed in the cannabis plant, and I always enjoyed being around it," he says.
Kornoelje calls his brush with the law both "unfortunate and fortunate." That's because after Michigan voters legalized marijuana for adult-use in 2018, the state and Grand Rapids implemented social equity policies aimed at helping those harmed by the War on Drugs enter the new legal industry. And what was once a liability for Kornoelje now gave him a leg up on starting his own business.
When Kornoelje found out that his past qualified him for reduced licensing fees, "I literally jumped for joy, man," he says. "I couldn't believe my eyes. Some of those qualifiers basically described to me to a T. 'Are you a felon?' Yes. 'Were you a cottage industry operator?' Yes. 'Do you live in Grand Rapids?' Yes. Every one of these things describes my life journey. I was extremely happy to see that."
Kornoelje obtained some of the first marijuana licenses in Grand Rapids and opened Pharmhouse Wellness in March, becoming the city's second medical marijuana dispensary. Last month, he expanded for adult-use customers, becoming Grand Rapids' first locally owned recreational marijuana dispensary. He plans on soon expanding to processing, so he can manufacture and sell his own marijuana products.
The name "Pharmhouse Wellness" is a double entendre, he says, playing off of the wellness benefits of cannabis and also the fact that the shop is run out of a green-painted former house originally built in 1890 on Wealthy Street on the city's southwest side.
Kornoelje gutted the 750-square-foot former residential home, bringing it up to commercial code. "On the inside, it's brand new," he says. "It's beautiful. We carry all the products that medical patients and recreational customers are looking for."
That includes cannabis flower, edibles, concentrates, tinctures, topicals, and other products. Kornoelje says he especially focuses on edibles that don't use sugars, as many tend to be delivered in candy-like forms, including gummies or brownies, that aren't ideal for all patients.
"We're really big fans of non-sugar and clean ways to medicate," he says. "We have topicals and rubs and capsules, which are just really good ways to medicate without exposing yourself to all the sugars that are inside of gummies and some of the other things. ... if you're a breast cancer patient, or somebody who is immunocompromised or has underlying health complications, it's good to look for other ways to medicate."
Kornoelje says he's thankful for his criminal record coming full circle to help him pursue his passion, but thinks that social equity programs can go further.
"I wish that it had come even earlier to allow a lot of the people who were not able to pursue medical licenses," he says. "They have a really high barrier to entry. You have to scrape up and show the government that you have a quarter million dollars of liquid assets. Not a lot of people who are 25, 30 years old can say, 'Hey, I've got a quarter million bucks in cash in my bank account. Here you go.' That's a big barrier for a lot of people. So I wish they would have done some things on the front end, but I do appreciate them trying to make this a priority."
He says that he hopes customers will reward small, local operators like him who have been in it for the long haul.
"These are people that were part of the industry before it became just another investment, you know, another way to generate money," he says. "These are people that were willing to put their freedoms on the line to pursue a plant and a passion that they believed in. So when you support somebody with that background, you make a statement with where you fall on cannabis."
Pharmhouse Wellness is located at 831 Wealthy St. SW, Grand Rapids; 616-551-0040; pharmhousewellness.com
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