Kema Ogden became Nevada’s first Black female dispensary owner in 2014 when she co-founded Global Harmony LLC, the parent company of Top Notch The Health Center (Top Notch THC), in her hometown of Las Vegas.

Through guiding the company to receive medical and adult-use retail licenses, as well as a cultivation license, Ogden has learned a lot about operating a cannabis business, which she says is full of surprises.

“So much is surprising in this industry,” Ogden tells Cannabis Business Times. “I was a business owner before, … and it’s unlike any business you could imagine. And that’s why I feel like, even though you might have business experience, it doesn’t necessarily equate to you being successful at this because it’s so different.”

Ogden, who also serves as Board Secretary for Washington, D.C.-based Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and is on the Nevada Cannabis Compliance Board’s Cannabis Advisory Commission, owned a gym and operated a nonprofit in the health and wellness space before her foray into the cannabis industry.

When Nevada legalized medical cannabis through a voter-approved initiative in 2000, Ogden’s passion for health and wellness inspired her to learn as much about cannabis and its medical benefits as she could.

This journey led her to meet her current business partners, and Top Notch THC has become what Ogden calls “the neighborhood dispensary,” which is able to compete with some of the larger, publicly traded cannabis operators in the state.

“We have a local presence,” she says. “We’re the original owners, [and] we’re very community based. We joke around, since we opened, we’re like the Cheers of the industry. We know everybody’s name. Our owners are very involved in the business. I’ve worked the register. I’ve been in there helping customers, and so has my partner. So, because of that, we feel very connected to the community, and we also do a lot of give back and charity work and nonprofit work. I think that’s the biggest component to our success.”

Photos courtesy of Top Notch THC

Top Notch THC holds medical and adult-use cannabis retail licenses, as well as a cultivation license.

The venture hasn’t been without its challenges, however.

“The compliance measures you have to comply with are just so strict,” Ogden says. “There are a lot of things you have to comply with, unlike any other business.”

One of these, she says, is tax code 280E.

“The 280E tax was very surprising—not being able to write off anything to your business and the high taxes,” Ogden says. “Just the cost of business in general is very alarming because you don’t really realize all of the things outside of the business that you need between legal fees, consultants, just things like that that really don’t factor into most businesses—and that’s even before you get open, a lot of the times.”

Ogden says her business’s challenges have changed over time as the industry has evolved, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest obstacle during the past few years. Top Notch THC has experienced staffing issues, like other industries, and has streamlined its hours and operations to remain open while being understaffed.

“When COVID hit, in general, we had to change our whole way of operating at the time,” Ogden says. “The city was shut down and we had to do just curbside and delivery. … You had to change your whole business model for COVID initially.”

The company has continued to thrive even during the pandemic, which Ogden says speaks to the benefits and normalization of cannabis.

“A lot of people are willing to sacrifice other things in order to make sure that they have access to cannabis for whatever reason they need it,” she says. “I think it’s only going to get better, as long as legislative bills pass and things are supported in our government to … [legalize] marijuana on a federal level. That can only help the retail side and what we can do, and it will help prices. … We can stop being taxed so high, and we can then give that savings back to the customer. I think, in turn, that’s just going to keep sales going and it’ll help us alleviate what’s going on in the black market.”

Ogden says that Top Notch THC changed its operations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that the company has continued to thrive despite the challenges.

Consumer education is only improving as the industry matures, Ogden adds. Over the years, Top Notch THC’s customers have become more familiar with the different ways to consume cannabis and the various components of the plant.

As an example, the dispensary’s customers are paired with a budtender who works with them one-on-one to explain the different product options and answer questions.

“The education piece or the knowledge from the consumer has definitely improved,” Ogden says. “People know what they want. When this originally rolled out, you had people who were even shying away from coming in because it was so frowned upon initially [with] the stigma. But now, you don’t have all those issues. People know what they want [and] they have no problem coming in.”

Nevada plans to roll out cannabis consumption lounges in the coming months, and Ogden has been helping to shape the forthcoming regulations for lounges as part of her role with the Cannabis Compliance Board’s Cannabis Advisory Commission.

“That has really been a great experience to see that develop and … to see how that’ll roll out and help the industry,” she says. “I think it’s also going to help who can be involved in the industry and give … those with barriers [a chance] to enter into the industry, so that’s exciting.”

Top Notch THC will apply for a license to operate a consumption lounge, although Ogden says there are still many unanswered questions on how the process will work as regulators draft the regulations.

In the longer-term, the company wants to expand its operations in Nevada, and, eventually, into other states.

“That’s what, ultimately, we’ve been looking into: just taking our brand and our success and helping other companies in other states or partnering with people in other states and just opening up our own operations in other states,” Ogden says.

For those just starting out in the industry, Ogden advises them to do their research and know when to bring in others for help.

“Understand that you may need to work and partner with people,” she says. “It’s very difficult to do alone. Put the right team of people together. And I always tell people who are interested [to] stay in your lane. I was not a grower. I didn’t know how to do that part of the business at all, so I brought in people who did, and I stay in my lane. I don’t try to tell them how to grow the product and [how] to make a good cultivation company. I never did that piece, so I teamed up with the right people and I learned as much as I could.”

Ogden also urges entrepreneurs, especially women, not to get easily discouraged when building their business.

“Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do it as a woman [or] as a minority,” she says. “We have to work twice as hard. I think just pushing through, learning as much as you can, arming yourself with as much knowledge as you can about the industry, and finding the right mentors and people to work around and work with to learn from—I think that’s really important.”