Aaron Justis, 37, grew up in Rockford and left in 2009 for California to pursue a career with the medical marijuana industry. He currently serves as president of Buds & Roses Collective, a dispensary in Los Angeles.
Justis was recently elected to the board of directors for the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade association with a small board comprised of industry leaders. He answered some questions via email about his experiences and offered advice about breaking into the business.
Question: How did you get involved with the medical marijuana business?
Answer: I have been a drug-policy activist since 1998, mainly focused on reforming America’s cannabis laws. As movements for medical cannabis and industrial hemp began to take hold, I found even greater motivation to change our outdated and harmful policies on cannabis.
Q: How difficult of a process was it to open a dispensary?
A: I entered the medical cannabis industry by joining the board of directors of an already operational dispensary.
Q: What was involved with that process?
A: First, I hired a well-respected lawyer in the cannabis industry for guidance. Second, I had to figure out how to operate a dispensary in compliance with all of the local and state laws. I then set out to find a dispensary in Los Angeles that was already registered and compliant but whose business was struggling. I joined the board of a dispensary that had been operating for a few years but was almost bankrupt. After a negotiation period, an agreement was established and I was elected as president of the board. From there, I began to build the business from a place very few knew about to the bustling dispensary it is today.
Q: Have you had any problems related to the sale of medical cannabis?
A: We are fortunate to be located in a safe area without a lot of crime and, therefore, haven’t had any serious security issues. One of the first things I did when I became president of Buds & Roses was to hire full-time, licensed security personnel to check patients in. We also implemented new software for patient-doctor verification in order to avoid fraud. Most of the problems we’ve had have been a result of the aggressive posture of the city. After years of litigation and failing to establish regulations, Los Angeles banned all dispensaries in 2012. We quickly formed a broad-based coalition to overturn the ban, which we did. We then led a campaign to pass regulations by local ballot initiative, which happened in 2013. The year-long failure by Los Angeles to adopt regulations resulted in federal raids, threats to landlords, and the closure of hundreds of dispensaries across the city. This was a very difficult and scary time.
Page 2 of 2 – Q: What was your response when you heard Illinois had approved medical marijuana for patient use?
A: I was thrilled! It was heartening to see my home state adopt a law that will now protect patients from arrest and prosecution, and provide them with safe access to a medication that works for them. Less people going to jail for cannabis is a huge victory. I hope that Illinois can be a model and inspiration to others.
Q: What advice would you give to someone looking to open a dispensary (understanding that the rules are slightly different in Illinois compared to California)?
A: Operating a dispensary is a lot like any other business. Cannabis, like many other products, must be produced and sold according to certain industry standards. There is a lot of overhead, and you can sink yourself just as with other businesses. You really have to love medical cannabis, and you must have compassion and understanding for the patients you’re serving. Patients are relying on you for a consistent, pure, high-quality product, and often, their health and quality of life depend on it. It’s important to note that cannabis is illegal under federal law, and distributing it to state-qualified patients is still a violation of federal law. Because dispensary operators like me are engaging in acts of federal civil disobedience every day, it’s crucial to dot your I’s and cross your T’s. Finally, anyone thinking about getting involved in this industry should expect delays and serious challenges.
— Melissa Westphal
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