After a life-changing tragedy struck his family, Narith Panh, chief operating officer (COO)  of Utah-based, vertically integrated medical cannabis company Dragonfly Wellness, entered the cannabis industry on a mission to help families find relief through this alternative form of medicine.

Now, more than two years into this journey, Panh shares with Cannabis Business Times what drew him to the industry, lessons learned and some of the company’s biggest accomplishments in celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month.

Melissa Schiller: How did you get your start in the cannabis industry, and how did it lead to your current role with Dragonfly Wellness?

Narith Panh: I joined Dragonfly about two and a half years ago. What got me into it was an unfortunate accident with my brother. My brother was involved in an auto-pedestrian hit-and-run accident. He was hit by a drunk driver as he was crossing the street at about 40 mph. That has a 90% mortality rate, so we’re really lucky that he survived the accident. Not only did he survive, but he really thrived through it. A big reason that he was able to thrive was that through his entire nine-month recovery, we medicated him on edible cannabis only—not a single pain pill. We still have the original prescriptions in the bottle that they originally gave him.

I was born and raised here in Salt Lake City, so the opioid epidemic is no stranger to me. I’ve lost friends and family to that. I didn’t want my brother to be the next statistic. It’s a very common story: A guy gets into an accident and all of a sudden, he becomes a heroin addict on the street. That’s really crazy to get to that point, but it’s a very common story that many families have to deal with.

One of [my brother’s] friends opened up a GoFundMe account and raised $60,000 from friends, family, complete strangers [and] people in the community. He got featured on the news somehow, and it was just overwhelming. We were fortunate that we had insurance, that the person who hit him had insurance [and that] they found the person. We had most of our medical expenses covered. We had $60,000 and we were like, “We don’t need this money. What do we do with it?” We were looking for somewhere to invest, somewhere to donate, and that’s where Dragonfly came up.

Photos courtesy of Dragonfly Wellness

Panh joined Dragonfly Wellness more than two years ago and recently became the company’s chief operating officer.

Through a friend of a friend, I learned that Dragonfly had just got awarded a cultivation license. I met with them because I saw what medical cannabis did for my family, and it developed the impetus for me to completely change my career. When something like that happens to you, it makes you completely reevaluate what you’re doing with your life. And at the time, all I was doing was consulting with Fortune 500 companies and helping these giant companies just make more money at the end of the day. So, it really flipped a switch for me. This tragic accident that happened, we came out of it in a positive way. How many other families don’t? How many families are impacted and could be helped if they just knew that medical cannabis is an option? That’s what got me thinking that we have to do something, and that was huge to create a catalyst for me to get into the cannabis industry.

RELATED: Dragonfly Wellness, Utah’s First Operational Medical Cannabis Pharmacy, Emphasizes Health and Wellness in State’s Nascent Market: The Starting Line

From there, I’ve just been an incredibly passionate advocate for medical cannabis, bringing awareness in our community, reducing the stigma, and trying to help other families. [For] many other families, whatever your doctor says is what you do. The option they give you, you just go with it. It’s very difficult for people to go and seek alternative choices. It’s a huge reason why I got [into the cannabis industry], why I do what I do and why I’m so passionate about what I do.

I’ve taken on a new role [as] the chief operating officer of Dragonfly, so I’ve definitely worked my way through the organization and built trust with our leadership team. Now, I’m basically running the day-to-day operations within our organization. [My brother] made a full recovery and he actually works here for the company now. Both of my brothers actually do. We completely left our previous jobs that our families were quite proud of and made the leap. Coming from an Asian immigrant family, cannabis is not an open conversation and oftentimes, it’s not something you tout or that you’re proud of, to tell your friends and families and neighbors and other people that your sons work for a cannabis company.

But my family did a complete one-eighty once they found out. I didn’t tell them at the time, when I was medicating my brother, that we were using medical cannabis. That stigma still existed in my own family. And [it wasn’t] until after the recovery, after we made the move to Dragonfly, that we revealed that this was a big reason why we were here.

MS: What is something that has surprised you about the industry, or something that most people don’t realize about working in the cannabis industry?

NP: I think one of the most common fallacies in the cannabis industry is that it’s this green rush, it’s this next big economic boom and there’s so much money to be made in it. And there isn’t. I think one thing people don’t understand is this illegality, this gray area between federal law and state law. On the one side, sure, it’s legal here in the state, but at the federal level, it’s still illegal. While the federal government doesn’t recognize cannabis as a medical drug, they have no problem taking tax money from an illegal business. That is a huge detriment to the industry because what ends up happening is that cost, that tax, ends up getting passed on to the patient and passed on to workers because you’re not able to pay workers as much. When you have to pay 40% to Uncle Sam before you deduct any of your business expenses, it makes it really hard to run a legitimate business. Our hands are tied everywhere that we go. I think some people on the outside, they think, “Oh, it’s a new industry,” and they think it’s just like any other business. Sometimes leaders in that business have to answer really hard questions and make really hard decisions because of this.

The reality is, if we were treated like any other legal business, we’d be a thriving business and we’d be able to provide employee benefits and really competitive wages compared to what maybe a tech company down the street from us is paying their employees. There’s a lot of great talent out there, but we have our hands tied in attracting great talent. I think among people in the cannabis industry, my story is no exception. You’ve heard this type of story a million times, and that’s unfortunately what it takes to get in the cannabis space for a lot of people, when it should just be treated like any other job, any other profession.

MS: What are some of your favorite lessons that you’ve learned in the industry?

NP: I would say No. 1 is adaptability. It sounds kind of cheesy, but honestly, I’ve never worked in an industry that’s as difficult as the cannabis industry, mainly because of regulation. In my previous career, we consulted with all sorts of different companies in every industry—technology, automotive, health care, pharmaceuticals. Cannabis is so difficult. You could set a three-year plan, but you can be pretty damn guaranteed that that three-year plan is not going to happen. And if you’re coming from a place where you know this has to happen, you’re going to have a hard time being successful. So, adaptability is huge. You have to roll with the punches because at any moment, a regulator could make a law change and it completely turns your industry upside down.

MS: What is the biggest challenge in managing a medical cannabis business in Utah’s market? How have you worked to overcome this challenge in your current role?

NP: One challenge here in Utah is it’s a medical-only state. They’re trying to regulate this like medicine, but they [can’t] because it’s still federally illegal.

One challenge, for example, is in the recent legislative session, [when] the Department of Agriculture made widespread changes to packaging and labeling laws. We have 30,000 bags that we’ve purchased that are now out of compliance. Now we have to change our branding, change our packaging [and] change our logos, and that is a huge detriment to any business. You put that level of investment into creating a brand that can be trusted to have that all stripped away because they don’t want marketing that appeals to children. That is their entire basis and their entire premise. A lot of the decisions that are made to regulate the industry are usually made from people who actually have no experience in the industry at all, that know nothing about medical cannabis, know nothing about its benefits, so they make rules that are based out of fear.

That’s just where knowledge is power. That’s where having conversations and building relationships with regulators [are important]. [Build] those bridges so they have a better understanding of what they don’t know. We’ve focused on having a really open and transparent relationship with our regulators. When they do something, we say something, and vice versa. “Hey, you guys just made this new rule. Here are what the potential implications are. I just wanted to see if that was your intention.” And oftentimes, it’s not. Oftentimes, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, we didn’t even know that. We didn’t even think about that. What would you suggest that we do?” We’ve seen a very positive relationship from that perspective, where the regulators have an open relationship with the industry. They listen to the industry. And sometimes, they even call us and say, “What do you think about this language? What do you think if we made this rule or this rule? What implications would that have?” And that’s how you really make change. You bridge that gap as opposed to shutting people out because of their thoughts or their views or their party or whatever it may be.

MS: What are some of the biggest opportunities that you see for the cannabis industry this year, in Utah or beyond? Is there anything you’re particularly excited about?

NP: I am unlike maybe a lot of people in the industry that don’t have too much hope for federal legislative changes here in the near future. Most people that I talk to, they just don’t have any confidence in the government that they’re going to make any widescale changes or anything significant, but I actually believe the opposite. I’m actually very optimistic about what’s going to happen at the federal level. Maybe it’s not what most people think, that cannabis is going to all of a sudden be 100% legal and recreational—I don’t think that’s going to happen—but I think at least the descheduling of cannabis [will happen], so it’s no longer a Schedule I drug. I think that’s the biggest impediment to business right now because it has implications on a number of levels. We can’t research the plant because it’s illegal, so you can’t do any FDA clinical studies. That’s a catch-22. There’s not enough data out there because it’s illegal and we can’t research it, but doctors want more data. So, [descheduling is] the first step, arguably, in the U.S.

And the second you move [cannabis] off Schedule I, now we’re not an illegal business. Now we’re not paying 40% tax to the federal government. Now we can operate like a regular business. We can pass that savings on to our patients, pass that money on to our employees, and give better wages and give better benefits. To me, that’s something that I’m very optimistic and very excited about.

MS: What are some of Dragonfly Wellness’ biggest accomplishments from the past year that you’re most proud of?

NP: I think the big buzzword is growth. Ever since day one, we’ve just been constantly growing, continually growing, and growing in a limited market that is pretty restrictive when it comes to medical patients. We only have 50,000 patients in the state of Utah, so that’s not a lot of patients for 14 pharmacies to go after. So, growth is huge. We’ve doubled everything that we’ve done at this stage. We’ve doubled the size of our pharmacy. We’ve doubled our manufacturing capabilities. We’ve doubled the size of our cultivation capabilities. The continual growth is incredibly exciting.

I’d say outside of all of that growth and infrastructure changes, culture is a huge part of our organization. Being recognized by Cannabis Business Times in back-to-back years for having one of the best workplaces to work for, that is huge. That’s something that our employees are self-reporting. That’s not something that the industry gave to us, or some writer awarded to us. That was real data and real information that came from employees within our organization that said, “I love working for Dragonfly. I love the culture, I love the opportunity, and I love being part of this.” That is so important because we’re not here just to build a business. We’re actually here to change our community, and you’ve got to have people who believe in that same passion and that vision. So, to me, receiving accolades like that is one of our greatest accomplishments. I think that’s something that we’re incredibly proud of, to be able to be recognized back-to-back years. We’re just a small, family business that started with a passion and a vision and has just built that one piece at a time, one employee at a time, one person jumping on to support the vision and the ethos of the company. That’s what I think we’re the most proud of.

RELATED: 2022 Best Cannabis Companies to Work For | Dispensary: #10 Dragonfly Wellness

MS: What are some of the company’s shorter- and longer-term goals?

NP: Short-term goals [are] to make sure that we are able to maintain the supply for the Utah market and its growth. While we benefit from having a limited-license market, on the flip side, it also puts a lot of pressure on those licensees to produce because there’s nobody else. For us, [it’s important to make] sure that we live up to our promise and commitment to the state of Utah and the patients of Utah, being one of the eight cultivators and one of the 14 pharmacy licensees. We are going to do everything we possibly can to provide for this community. And not only just provide, but also provide at affordable prices.

That’s been a huge goal for us this year, is increasing our automation capabilities so that way we can reduce the price of production and pass that savings on to our patients, so they can see some reduction in cost of products this year. And that’s pretty awesome to see. We’re only three years into the program, and technically half the pharmacies just started last year. So, to be able to start reducing prices and be on par with our neighboring states already, that’s pretty awesome.

Then, long-term, Dragonfly actually has some pretty big goals. Obviously, with our AAPI background, we have goals to be one of the first cannabis brands in Southeast Asia. We’re already currently working on some relationships and working with government officials to show them the benefits of medical cannabis, show them what we’re doing here [in the United States] in the hopes of convincing these other countries to adopt laws that start to at least allow medical cannabis in their countries.

Only one [Asian country has legalized cannabis]: Thailand. The prime minister made it legal for adult-use. Obviously, a huge part of their economy comes from tourism, so they were able to do that. Basically, anybody can grow cannabis in Thailand. It doesn’t matter. You can grow it in your backyard. You can do whatever you want. Anybody who wants to grow can grow. Obviously, there are testing standards and places you can sell it legally if you want to, but what they did is they created a true agricultural economy. Thailand is one of the first countries out there that has allowed that, but in pretty much every other Asian country, it’s illegal.

RELATED: Thailand to Distribute Cannabis Plants for Home Cultivation

China is currently allowing hemp manufacturing. They’re probably going to be one of the biggest hemp manufacturers in the world in the next decade here. They’re probably going to be one of the next big countries to consider the legalization of cannabis. So, there’s definitely movement going on over there.

MS: What advice would you offer to new or existing cannabis operators who want to succeed in this industry?

NP: I think a huge part of Dragonfly’s success is our diversity. And not just diversity in race, but our diversity in gender. We are proud to be a female-led organization, and there are not very many of those in the cannabis industry or any industry in general [that are] female-led and minority-led. That really allows you to come from a very different business lens, from a different perspective. We look at things differently coming from a different background and a different culture and a different upbringing. We approach things differently, and I think that’s what you need for industries to succeed, is a diversity in opinions. That way, not everybody is doing the same damn thing and thinking the same damn way.

Diversity in thought [is] what it comes down to. And not just, “Hey, I’m going to hire the seven most experienced cannabis professionals,” [because] you’re going to do the exact same thing that people have been doing for the past 20 years if you’re hiring someone who’s been doing this for 20 years. So, why don’t you bring somebody else from a different industry who has a different perspective, who’s been running a different industry, and can bring some of that learning into this industry?

Have diversity in thought, have diversity in leadership [and] make sure that whoever is on your team is not just the people who drink your Kool-Aid. You need people who are going to challenge your smart ideas and your dumb ideas. If you have a bunch of people who just follow your blindly, you’re not going to get a lot of pushback and you’re not going to get a lot of great ideas if you don’t have people challenging you. And you’re not going to get people challenging you if you don’t have diversity. [If] they look like you, they think like you [and] they behave like you, [then] they’re going to do the exact same things as you.

We’re really happy to be that representation for anybody who has ever been underserved, undermined [or] overlooked. We really take a lot of pride in representing those voices that, you work hard, you do the right things, and good things will come to you.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for style, length and clarity.