Above and Beyond

Dispensary wins first San Diego license by exceeding requirements

by Tony C. Dreibus

When David Blair decided to compete for one of the first dispensary licenses in San Diego, he took some extra measures to ensure his application would stand out. Blair ponied up several hundred dollars to have a security company hold his place in line for three full days, and he showed up at 5 a.m. the day the Developmental Services Department began taking applications.

The goal was to ensure he was among the first five people in the door to submit a check for $9,000, a completed application and a packet of requested information. Blair also went far above and beyond the basic requirements to obtain a license, particularly when it came to security.

The strategy paid off: Blair and his partners Douglas Cristofo and Zach Lazarus not only won a license, they received the very first one the city granted. What’s more, San Diego officials were so impressed with the application that they even adopted some of the trio’s security measures as new standards for future applicants.

Blair’s expertise and background played a role as well. He’s a professor of business ethics at San Diego State University, holds a doctorate in leadership studies and previously owned a clinic that evaluated patients seeking treatments using medical cannabis. He also recently ran an MMJ delivery business in the area and has been a medical marijuana patient himself since 1996.

A Green Alternative opened on the city’s southeast side in March.

“We never thought we would get a license,” Blair said. “We had no idea we were going to be No. 1, but we were committed to doing more than the city asked for.”

Blair spoke with Marijuana Business Magazine about the process and offered some advice to would-be dispensary owners about the best way to secure a license.

Play Nice With City Officials

Blair said he and his business partners now consider Edith Gutierrez, the city official who oversees the marijuana dispensary application process in San Diego, a friend. They even decided to honor her in their own special way.

“We named a CBD strain after her,” he said. “I asked her before we did it if she’d be offended and she said she’d be thrilled to have it named after her.”

Whenever Gutierrez called, the trio jumped into action and strived to provide her with whatever she needed within hours.

Blair, Cristofo and Lazarus never argued or asked why the city wanted something – they simply provided it. This type of no-questions-asked approach to cooperation helped them win a license, Blair said.

“The relationship we have developed with the city has been stellar,” he said. “I know everybody thinks it’s difficult to open a dispensary in California, but we followed the rules and every time we got documents sent to us … we responded that day, whether it was maps, parking designations or a signature. Whatever she needed, we did it.”

The trio also made nice with a hearing officer for the city’s Developmental Services Department who would go on to approve their application, as well as with the inspectors who came to the dispensary before and after the application was approved.

Blair said he wanted to be as transparent as possible and show that he aimed to run an ethical business.

“You can be adversarial, which may make you feel good, but in the end that doesn’t work,” he said. “If they’ve asked to come see the facility, we’ve always welcomed them.”

Take Requirements a Step Further

Once the license was approved, it was time to renovate the building they planned to use. Blair had the backing of his landlord, to whom he had been paying rent for months, so he was eager to get to work.

During the build-out of their facility, the owners decided to install not only bulletproof glass, but also to use bulletproof drywall. They chose to have a guard stand staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year as well. The security precautions were so popular with the city that officials adopted them as newly written regulations.

“It was quite a compliment” that the city thought so highly of their ideas, Blair said.

They also focused on creating a modern, comfortable ambience for patients. The interior of the building alone cost $70,000 to renovate, as the trio installed mahogany floors, put in textured walls and purchased leather seating for the dispensary’s waiting area.

“Everything a patient will touch is brand new,” Blair said.

Remember the Patients

A patient himself, Blair said he wanted to build a company that would treat medical marijuana users the way he always wanted to be treated when visiting a dispensary. He said he’d been to shops in Los Angeles that were dirty, dim and lacking customer service. He often left wondering “why you would do that to an ill person?”

Over the years, he became friends with many of the patients he met as owner of both the evaluation clinic and the delivery service. While the money was good, and always necessary, it was his friends that convinced him to open A Green Alternative.

“When the opportunity to open a dispensary came about, we knew this is really what we wanted to do,” he said.

The dispensary offers discounts to low-income patients and sets aside a certain percentage of its revenues for charitable organizations in San Diego.

So far, the quality build, customer service and friendly atmosphere have proved to be a winning mix. Revenues in the first six weeks totaled more than $600,000, and the dispensary has 2,300 customers – a staggering number of patients for one store. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that A Green Alternative is the only legal dispensary in the entire city of San Diego, which covers 372 square miles and has a population of nearly 1.5 million people.

Prepare for the Future

The store will have competition soon enough, as other applicants have been approved to open after going through the same rigorous licensing process. Still, Blair said he’s not concerned about competition sapping his revenues.

“I’m not too worried about competition,” he said. “In fact, we welcome it. There’s enough business for everybody.”

There’s also a strong possibility that California will legalize recreational marijuana in 2016, a prospect that could usher in a new era for A Green Alternative, Blair said.

They’re is ready for it – Blair said A Green Alternative has enough employees, enough space and enough foresight to prepare well in advance. The only thing that needs to change is the law.

The recent success and potential growth down the road has led Blair and his partners to consider opening a second location. That could take some time, however, as each address must have its own license, meaning they would have to go through the application process all over again.

Though everything went relatively smoothly the first time around, Blair said he thinks it will go even better if he aims for a second license.

“We know the city and we know what they want,” he said, “so I think it’ll go even quicker the next time.”

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