Helping Hands

, Helping Hands

Reaching out to consultants, community crucial for Connecticut dispensary

by Tony C. Dreibus

When Laurie Zrenda discovered that Connecticut law requires dispensary owners to be pharmacists, she saw a unique opportunity. Zrenda had been working as a retail pharmacist for nearly three decades. Ready for a change, she thought the cannabis space could provide her with a ticket to a new career. Being unfamiliar with the industry, however, didn’t instill her with a lot of confidence that she’d be able to navigate the choppy regulatory waters. Scanning the state’s licensing requirements only increased her pessimism.

“I looked at the application online,” she said. “It was really scary and I thought, “I can’t do this.’”

Still, she couldn’t stop thinking about owning her own company and finally working for herself. Undaunted, she decided to dig a little further. Zrenda attended a cannabis conference in the summer of 2013 with her niece, Meredith Elmer, who was also a pharmacist.

There she met several people who provided some useful advice, and the pair sparked up a conversation with representatives from a Colorado-based consulting company. Zrenda and Elmer hired the firm and just over a year later opened the doors to their dispensary, Thames Valley Relief.

Located in the small hamlet of Uncasville, Connecticut, the dispensary now has about 375 registered customers – up from 145 when it opened – and is nearing profitability.

As with any startup, however, there have been and likely will continue to be a lot of unexpected hurdles. Zrenda found that the keys to success for someone new to the industry include seeking help, being patient and ensuring that you have friends in the community.

Find an Adviser

To get through the tense moments, Zrenda and Elmer constantly repeat a refrain they heard during the first speech they attended at that fateful conference in 2013: “It’s like a roller coaster – there are going to be ups and there are going to be downs.”

Ensuring the number of ups outweigh the number of downs requires help from people who understand the nuances of the complicated licensing and regulatory process – which is especially crucial for entrepreneurs who aren’t familiar with the industry, Zrenda said.

Marijuana laws in Connecticut are unique even by cannabis industry standards and therefore can be more difficult to understand. For one, every bit of medication that leaves a dispensary must be inspected by a pharmacist, so one must always be on duty. And while medical marijuana cardholders in some states can just walk into any dispensary, in Connecticut they must register with and buy from a designated center.

“Get a good consultant because there is so much to know,” Zrenda said. “I’m not sure we would’ve done as well in the application process without one.”

Be Patient

Zrenda discovered that obtaining a license wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t quick. After attending the Chicago conference in August 2013, Zrenda rushed to finish the application, which was due in mid-November of that year. It then took the state of Connecticut until April 2014 – almost five months – to announce license winners.

Even then, the waiting game wasn’t over. Zrenda and Elmer couldn’t open until growers were ready to deliver their products, which took until September 2014.

While waiting, the two held down their jobs at retail pharmacies. But they were confident that the application would be approved, thanks to the help they received from the consultancy, Denver Relief. Eventually the pieces fell into place and Zrenda left her position – her employer didn’t allow her to stay on even part-time because she was dispensing marijuana.

Then came the big day.

Prior to the store opening on Sept. 22 of last year, Zrenda imagined lines down the block like she’d seen when the first rec shops opened in Colorado. Unfortunately, it was quite the opposite – she was seeing only about six patients a day, too few to sustain the business, pay employees and provide a paycheck for her and her niece.

Once again, patience was vital. The situation quickly improved – the dispensary is now seeing about 35 people each day – and Thames Valley is finally getting close to profitability.

“At first I was a little nervous when I was seeing six people a day,” Zrenda said. “But it’s about being patient, knowing it’s going to take some time to catch on.”

Make Inroads Within the Community

When dispensaries generally open, people are sometimes reluctant to walk in after about eight decades of prohibition. So would-be owners need to do what they can to change any negative public perception people within the community may have about medical marijuana.

And there’s a lot of misinformation out there, as many people have a preconceived idea about what a dispensary does. Zrenda said she was still working at her retail job when Thames Valley was announced as a license winner, and she often overheard people talking about it while waiting in line for medication.

“What was funny was when it hit the papers that we were coming to the town, people would say negative things,” Zrenda said. The pharmacy technician “would say ’Oh, Laurie’s opening it,’ then all of a sudden they were saying the dispensary was OK. Having a pharmacist running it helps with public opinion. It helped that customers knew me and I wasn’t a stranger coming into town, so I didn’t get much negativity.”

She also attends support groups for multiple sclerosis patients and has spoken to veterans about the benefits of medical marijuana for those who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She said she tries to get into doctor’s offices to let them know that MMJ is an option, but so far many have been resistant.

Doctors want to see hard evidence and peer-reviewed studies showing the benefits of cannabis in treating certain conditions. While there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence, finding controlled scientific studies has been difficult since most government reports highlight the down side of cannabis consumption. Still, Zrenda said, “we’re getting there.”

Understand Zoning Laws and Requirements

Even neighbors in the strip mall in which the dispensary is located have been quite understanding, though some were worried that there’d be “kids smoking (marijuana) over by the tree,” Zrenda said. Now the other shopkeepers understand what she’s doing and how it can help those in need.

Zrenda and Elmer were lucky enough to find a storefront in a high-traffic area of town, but it wasn’t an easy task. Zrenda decided early on that she’d be in charge of finding a suitable location. She attended zoning meetings to find out which towns would even possibly let the duo open a medical marijuana operation within city limits, and was actually turned down by several before finding the dispensary’s current locale.

“The larger areas, they didn’t really want us,” she said. “We went to some zoning meetings – one was at election time and they wouldn’t even go there because they wanted to be re-elected.”

Municipalities where she initially hoped to locate wanted descriptions of the products she planned to sell, how she and Elmer were going to operate the company, the business’s work flow and its security plan, amongst a slew of other information.

Zrenda spoke with a friend who was on the zoning commission in Uncasville, where she had worked as a pharmacist for many years and knew a lot of people. The friend told her that the area would likely welcome her with open arms and that since she was the only dispensary for miles, she’d have built-in clientele. Knowing people in Uncasville also helped immensely, she said.

“I’m glad I ended up in the town where I worked,” she said.

Enjoy What You Do

Since she opened, Zrenda said the ups have indeed outweighed the downs on her roller-coaster ride, and she doesn’t for a second regret leaving the relative comfort of having a steady position as a retail pharmacist for the wild world of cannabis. Being her own boss has been “amazing,” and knowing she’s helping people who need it has been rewarding.

“It’s really different than working in a pharmacy,” she said. “Though people are sick, they’re happy and relieved and grateful that we’re here for them. There’s no negativity and it’s been a pleasure. If I could spend a day and just talk to people, they’d realize this is a very positive thing. It’s been amazing.”