Although many barriers exist when launching a cannabis dispensary, Hope Wiseman, owner of Mary & Main in Capitol Heights, Md., says besides finding capital, access to the expertise and industry knowledge necessary to compete may top the list.

“The major players, we’re in play. It’s difficult to jump into a new market now,” Wiseman says. “Ten years ago, everybody was new, so the competition was level. Now you have some people who are way out front.”

However, because there are more established companies than when Wiseman started the cannabis license application process for Mary & Main in 2014, “there are ladders to climb where you can get experience,” she says. 

Ahead of her session at Cannabis Conference 2022, where Wiseman will be moderating on a panel of experienced dispensary owners on how to get a retail business off the ground, she offers advice on site selection, hiring, budgeting and more.  

Editor’s note: Hope Wiseman will be moderating the session “How to Launch a Medical or Adult-Use Dispensary” from 10:00-11:10 a.m. Aug. 23 at Cannabis Conference, taking place at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino. In this session, experienced dispensary operators will weigh in on site selection, how to ensure you have enough capital to sustain your business through common project delays that could otherwise derail your opening plans, and much more.

Visit https://www.cannabisconference.com/ for more information and to register. 

Michelle Simakis: There are many components that go into dispensary site selection, but what would be one nonnegotiable when you are looking at a location and trying to decide where to house your cannabis dispensary? Is there a most important consideration?

Hope Wiseman: For retail specifically, I would say [lack of] parking is one of the biggest deterrents, unless you’re in a city or a heavily populated area where people are used to not driving. I find that sites with a large parking lot and close enough to a major road and that have decent visibility do very well.

MS: When you we launching Mary & Main, what unexpected costs came up, and what should other business owners watch out for?

HW: I don’t want to say this was unexpected, and it doesn’t matter if it’s cannabis or not, but construction. It always takes longer and costs more than you think, so I don’t think it was unexpected, but I will say it was a struggle to navigate. I think one of the unexpected costs for us, and I think for a lot of people in the cannabis industry, are those business services, [such as] consulting fees, legal fees. You don’t realize how much you have to do. And if you want to do it right the first time, pay for it up front. It can be a little bit jarring because [the requirements are] different than a typical retail business getting up and running, [where] you’re not going to need as much help compliance-wise and you’re not going to need as much paperwork.

MS: Estimates vary on how much business owners will need in a rainy-day fund, but is there a percentage you can offer as far as capital needed for unexpected costs?

HW: I would save 10% to 15% of your entire budget as a contingency for those things. You’re going to do your best to make a budget that’s accurate, but that 10% to 15% I believe is a really good buffer.

MS: What advice do you have for cannabis dispensary owners in working with local municipalities when establishing their businesses, especially in places that may be skeptical of cannabis companies?  

HW: The first thing is to understand how much control [the local municipality] has or not and in what way. For example, in Maryland, the local municipalities could not deny a license, per se. The only type of jurisdiction they had was around zoning. Some did make it a little more difficult to find a location than others, which signaled who was more supportive of cannabis coming into communities versus ones that weren’t. Now in the states where the local municipalities pretty much have all of the control, it’s a different situation. This is more dire of a point.

Even though we could not be denied, we did want to work with our local community, [Capitol Heights]. We found out what the community was lacking in, and we found out how we could begin to fill those holes or assist other organizations to help fill those holes. I’d say have that conversation, even if you want to be in an area where they are not open to having cannabis. A lot of times [after] meeting you, understanding you have a true business plan and strategy, and debunking all of the stigma and myths that come with cannabis, [it helps.] Ask them what holes the community has—whether it be in education, whether it be some type of food insecurity like we had in Capitol Heights. We were able to bring a farmers’ market to Capitol Heights to be able to solve that gap. Nothing to do with cannabis, but we were able to facilitate that. Those types of things will have your community warmed up to you and ready to partner with you to help you build your business.

MS: What went into facilitating the farmers’ market and how involved were you?

HW: We actually had a meeting with the city council, and we just asked, what’s going on in Capitol Heights? What are the pain points of the county? We heard about Capitol Heights experiencing food insecurity, no grocery stores within the ZIP code. So we found a nonprofit, The Capital Market. They have been doing farmers’ markets through different locations around Capitol Heights for a few years, but they had lost their location. We have an awesome parking lot in a really good area, central Capitol Heights, so we offered up our location. We’re very involved in marketing it; this is our third year partnering with them. And we’re pretty involved in the marketing side, a little bit on the planning side, we’re out there every week as a vendor as well and teaching people about medical cannabis. I pride really ourselves on being able to identify those gaps so that the community knows we’re not just here to sell you cannabis. We want to make the community better and help make it better the way you want to make it better, not the way we think it should be. A lot of companies do that, too, where they say, “We’re having a coat drive” but it’s like, “We don’t need coats.”

MS: Who is the first person you’d hire on your team when applying for a license?

HW: Going through an application process, the very first person I would hire is an admin who has research skills, some type of technical writing skills and project management skills. That would be the very first person I would get. The two of you can rock ‘n’ roll for a little while until you get to another stage. There are three buckets of your team—I’ll elaborate more on the panel.

MS: After hearing your session at Cannabis Conference, what would you like attendees to walk away with? Big takeaways?

HW: I hope that after this panel, the mystery behind an application process is debunked. I’m hoping that people can see the similarities from state to state as well as how to organize their process to not break the bank. The goal is to teach people a blueprint so that no matter what state they are in, they can acquire a dispensary license at the lowest output possible while the capital is still at-risk capital. We don’t want you spending your money until you have a license.  

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