Getting Ready for Rec

Physician-owned dispensary leverages experience, health and wellness approach to enter Massachusetts’ adult-use market

By Adrian D. Garcia

Garden Remedies runs its medical marijuana dispensary in New England with a simple ethos: “Compassionate relief. Rooted in medicine.” The Newton, Massachusetts-based company plans to double down on its health and wellness approach — expanding its medical marijuana operations and educating customers about clean cannabis — now that the state has become the first on the East Coast to roll out a recreational marijuana market.

Dr. Karen Munkacy used her experience as a licensed physician to turn Garden Remedies into a vertically integrated, recognized brand in Massachusetts after the state started medical cannabis sales in 2015. Now, Munkacy and her team want to join the recreational market and are getting ready by expanding growing capabilities and opening a second medical dispensary in Melrose, about 10 miles north of Boston.

Garden Remedies grows, processes and manufactures cannabis products at its center in Fitchburg, near the New Hampshire state line. Contractors then deliver the products – edibles, including caramels, honey and chocolates, as well as topicals, vape cartridges and other items – to the dispensary in Newton.

A large part of figuring out how Garden Remedies will fit into the new rec market will fall on the shoulders of Jeff Herold, the company’s chief operations officer. Herold oversaw the recreational application that Garden Remedies submitted May 30 and monitors the ongoing expansion of the company’s growing capabilities. His goal is to ensure the company has enough product to serve the new market without causing disruptions for existing medical customers.

“We’re really looking to build on the quality medical brand that we have now and focus on health and wellness,” Herold said. “Our differentiator is really going to be our fully integrated operation. Because we’re fully integrated, we can provide consistent, high-quality products.”


Expanding to Meet Demand

The Garden Remedies Dispensary opened in fall 2016. The following year, the company launched a delivery service to take its medical marijuana directly to patients’ doors. The next-day delivery service is available in Middlesex, Norfolk and Worcester counties, and in Bristol, Essex and Plymouth counties three days per week.

Herold said the company’s second dispensary in Melrose is expected to open around September. And if the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission approves Garden Remedies’ application, the company could start recreational sales as early as this summer — depending, of course, when adult-use sales begin in the state. The ultimate timeline for rec sales depends on when Garden Remedies receives approval. Massachusetts awarded Sira Naturals the first cultivation license for the state’s rec marijuana program June 21.

Ahead of the Cannabis Control Commission deciding on its license, Garden Remedies readied for recreational sales by hiring additional staff, expanding its grow rooms and manufacturing edibles that meet the limits of 5 milligrams per serving and 20 milligrams per package.

In April, the company was granted “priority” applicant status by the Cannabis Control Commission, giving the organization the ability to apply for a recreational license before new players interested in joining the industry. Garden Remedies used its past licensing knowledge on how to share information about its operations, executive team and sites to submit an application for a recreational dispensary license in May. (Staff were still waiting for a decision when they spoke with Marijuana Business Magazine.)

While awaiting the official OK, Garden Remedies continued expanding its grow and cultivation facility in Fitchburg. The company wrapped up the second phase of construction on the building around the beginning of the year, increasing the facility’s growing capacity by 130%. The cultivation facility went from holding room for 1,300 flowering plants to enough space for around 3,000 plants. Garden Remedies hoped to complete work on roughly 13,000 square feet of extra cultivation area in July, allowing for a total of 4,700 flowering plants.

“We currently have an 82,000-square-foot building that’s being built out in stages. We’re about halfway into the build-out of that and making it fully operational,” Herold said. “Our focus has always been on maintaining an adequate amount of supply for our patients. We really do have a patient-first approach, so what we’ve focused on for the past one to two years is building capacity and then finding distribution after that.”

In this case, the additional cannabis cultivation made possible by the expansion will be used to support sales at the Garden Remedies dispensary coming online in Melrose. The additional grow capabilities also would allow the company to meet recreational demand.

And sales are ongoing at the Newton store. Garden Remedies declined to share financial details, but Herold said the company features more than 50 cannabis products in its portfolio, sees more than 1,000 customers weekly at its dispensary in Newton and consistently has grown quarterly sales since 2016.


Remembering Medical Sales

“We’re applying for adult use, but we’re doubling down on medical at the same time,” Herold said, referring to the new Melrose facility and the company’s delivery service.

Garden Remedies’ facility in Melrose is on track to be that city’s first medical marijuana dispensary.

It’s possible Garden Remedies could offer both recreational and medical cannabis at its dispensaries in Newton and Melrose. The company is still sorting out the regulations and writing standard operating procedures around new labeling rules, how to package appropriately and other requirements, but Herold said he believes there must be a “virtual separation” between recreational and medical sales, which can be distinguished at the cash register. That virtual separation means Garden Remedies dispensaries could one day be hybrid medical-recreational shops.

Melrose has a temporary moratorium barring recreational marijuana establishments through at least December. Newton has a similar moratorium on adult-use shops, but city regulators exempted Garden Remedies from the temporary ban. Herold said the city opted to use the company as a possible test case on rec sales.


Focusing on Health and Wellness

“The adult-use market is full of customers that are looking for health and wellness products – much like the medical market – so we think it’s an ideal place for us to be,” Herold said.

Part of the plan is to try to attract clients who may not have felt comfortable registering for medical marijuana cards due to privacy or other concerns. There’s also a push to go after the consumer who cares about consuming virtually organic cannabis.

Being founded by a physician allows Garden Remedies to lean into the message of being a cannabis company focused on helping patients and scientifically producing clean cannabis that is free of chemicals and added nutrients like nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium solutions found in hydroponic grows.

It’s an approach that could benefit the company with adult-use customers who are sticklers about how the plants are grown.

“We grow in soil and never add any pesticides or fertilizers to the cannabis,” Herold said. “It requires more space. We, obviously, have soil we have to store and move around. It’s also more expensive, but we believe it gives us a better medicine in the end.”

Garden Remedies pays special attention to the terpene levels in the plants. (See related story, Page 56.)  Terpenes are the chemical compounds responsible for the smell of cannabis and help define a given strain’s unique effect. Focusing on terpenes allows the company to grow cannabis for different patients’ needs, such as pain and nausea control, according to Herold.

With recreational sales starting, Herold said, the company will have to educate first-time cannabis buyers about how Garden Remedies’ growing method is different and what that difference means to quality.


Reaching Customers

Garden Remedies’ success depends on the company’s ability to reach more customers. The addition of the delivery service allowed the company to sell to patients who may not be able to visit or interested in patronizing the Newton dispensary. The next-day delivery service also helps Garden Remedies serve municipalities like Worcester, the second-largest city in Massachusetts, where marijuana dispensaries are absent.

While Garden Remedies waited for the OK to start recreational sales, the company focused on reaching customers through 10%-15% discounts for seniors, veterans and those experiencing hardship. The brand also hoped to stand out through food collections and attending the fourth annual New England Cannabis Convention in March.

“Entering into the adult-use market is going to require us to operate much like any retail business, right?” Herold said. “Social media and community outreach and all of those things are, obviously, important. We truly intend to create a community around our business and our product both online and in person.”


The Doctor Difference

Garden Remedies believes having a licensed physician at the helm sets the company apart from other medical marijuana dispensary operators in Massachusetts.

Dr. Karen Munkacy founded Garden Remedies in 2013 after successfully campaigning for the Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Initiative the previous year. As president and CEO of the Newton-based company, Munkacy pushes a roughly 80-person staff to always put the patients first.

“We look at this endeavor with a scientific eye and try to make all of our decisions based on empirical evidence,” Munkacy said. For instance, Garden Remedies sets its harvest schedule using a high-performance liquid chromatography machine that shows when cannabidiol levels are at their peak. Altogether, the Garden Remedies lab holds “well over $1 million worth of equipment.”

“It’s really important for us to have the best quality medications for people. A lot of people come to us because every pharmaceutical they’ve tried has failed them, so we’re kind of their last of hope of having their suffering alleviated,” Munkacy said.

Munkacy is no stranger to suffering. She is a board-certified anesthesiologist and pain-management specialist as well as a former faculty member at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and University of Southern California medical centers.

Munkacy set up Garden Remedies to educate medical marijuana cardholders about options that might relieve their symptoms and about past experiences of other patients.

“We’re not their physicians. I am a physician, but I don’t have a doctor-patient relationship with the people who come to us for medical marijuana,” she said. “So, all of our staff is emphatically taught: We can’t give medical advice, but we can help teach people how to use our medications.”

Behind the scenes, Munkacy hired a Ph.D. with experience in the pharmaceutical industry to oversee the processing and manufacturing lab in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. She put someone with a master’s degree in extraction technology as the second in command and added three other scientists to the team.

“Having a scientific background has helped direct how we grow the plant, how we process the medications, the lab equipment we purchase and the people we have,” she said. “We really love to show people what we’ve created, because it’s not a farm, it’s pharma, and the quality is extraordinary.”

Munkacy encourages her team to do whatever research and development are necessary to make the best cannabis products possible.

“We want the best quality medication for our patients, and sometimes you have to spend a lot more money to do that. But you show what’s possible and how it should be done,” she said.

– Adrian D. Garcia