Sara Gullickson: How the Cannabis Industry is Changing

Meet Sara Gullickson, founder of, a company that helps entrepreneurs obtain cannabis dispensary permits and open cultivation centers. Her track record in helping get dispensaries up-and-running is, quite frankly, outstanding. (You’ll find out by reading on!) Sara is definitely someone you want to get some advice from if you’re thinking of setting up a dispensary or cannabis-related business pretty much anywhere it’s state-legal to do so.

What made you want to start working in the cannabis industry?

I actually fell into the industry. I used to have a small marketing agency, and we did marketing campaigns and digital strategy for spas, salons and health facilities. I got approached by a company that was starting a medical marijuana consulting, and they asked if I’d help brand them. So that’s how I got involved, which was about 7 years ago.

Tell us more about what Dispensary Permits does.

The more I learned, the more I understood that not a lot of people in the industry – or even the United States – knew what I knew about the licensing process. So, that’s what Dispensary Permits does. We help people get their licenses in highly regulated state markets. A lot of times, those are very competitive. So what we do is put together a request for a proposal or an application to help them be selected by the state in order to be operational as a dispensary and/or cultivation center.

What advice would you give to a new, cannabis-focused startup, then?

Well, this is a hot topic! Everyone wants to know how to break into the industry, and I think everybody wants to know how to break into the industry because they see dollar signs! Coming from someone who’s been at this for 7 years, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication. It takes having a lot of passion for the plant. And, really, your heart has to be in the right place to navigate through this highly complex, new business model.

And so, I know one of the reasons why I’ve been so successful is because, not only do I have so much respect for the plant now, but I’m so tenacious that I can be creative and think about solutions, when other people see roadblocks. So, with anything you want to go after, a lot of hard work, some blood, sweat and tears, and dedication for the cause is I think is the best way to navigate this industry.

What did you learn about the plant over those 7 years?

You know, it’s that we keep learning, because there’s not a lot of research out there. And so, it’s funny, because these studies keep coming out, and all of a sudden cannabis is good for something else that we never thought it was good for. My idea of the plant and why it’s so good for you is really simple: you’re putting something back in your body, that your body already has.

And so, cannabis can help you feel better in a multitude of ways, whether that’s for anxiety, or for hunger, or cancer, or glaucoma or for HIV … For me, I look at cannabis as something to use in order to be well. It’s not just for people who are dying – it’s also for people who want to improve and enhance the quality of their life.

What are the most common mistakes you see cannabis entrepreneurs making? How can they avoid those pitfalls?

This is a space where there’s no one way to do it. There’s no roadmap. You open up any other business, and it’s a little bit easier. There are other businesses functioning in the space, and they obviously don’t have to deal with their business being federally illegal. There are many layers to the cannabis industry.

But I think people try and grow too fast [as in expand their business – not necessarily cannabis plants!]. I think people don’t really understand their core competencies, and they try and expand and offer even more services. Just trying to move too quickly. You have to move super quick in this industry and I understand that but, in my opinion, it’s really unfortunate to see people taking other people’s money for services they hardly know how to do themselves! So, you know, become an expert at your craft. Learn your craft. If you don’t know your craft, hire somebody who does know that craft!

Another thing I’ve been speaking about at a lot of national conferences is … We’re fighting for our position. We’re fighting big pharma to make this legal in the 20 states it’s not legal in. So, we have to have some kind of advocacy in the industry. But what I see now, is that the industry is starting to segregate itself. So, it’s starting to fight each other, instead of fighting against the opposition, which I find really disheartening.

And so, I think, as a whole, the industry needs to stick together and keep as cohesive as possible. It’s like, “No, we all need to stick together, because together we can go further.”

I find that quite interesting, especially with what you said earlier about people coming into this space in order to make a quick buck. Do you think that’s had an impact on the cannabis community and how they approach this?

I think some of the groups are looking at this as, “How can I get in and exit in 2 or 3 years?” That doesn’t happen in any other business, right? So, what other business model do you get into, and then in 2 years you can just get out and be totally rich? It’s not realistic.

So, I think that, if everybody worked towards the good of the people and the patients and worried a little bit less about their bottom line – and look, I get it, running a business – but there’s a point where, you know, you don’t have to be “creepy”. And, an example of that is recently when we were working in Ohio.

I had a small farmer come to me and ask, “What are your fees?” I told him our fees, and it made him extremely uncomfortable. So, the more I got to know about him … He was highly skilled in agriculture and had the land to do a good farm. He wanted to do something small, and he had the money set aside to do something small, and he was a Purple Heart.

So, I can look at somebody like that and say, “Hey, you know what? This guy would be really good for the industry.” And I am, in essence, one of the gatekeepers of the industry because I help people get their licensing, right? So I look at this man and give him a discount, because he served our country and would actually do a really good job in the industry.

For me, to be at a point in my business model, where I can give back to people, that feels good! I think everyone needs to make sure they’re upholding that commitment to the industry and giving back where they can.

There are a lot of concerns surrounding the testing of cannabis for safety and efficacy. How does your company deal with such concerns? Do you require companies to have standardized testing procedures?

Yeah. So, when we’re applying for an actual license, part of our application is putting together a solid quality control plan. And so, what we can showcase to the government if we are awarded a license, is “This is what we’ll do to make sure that the products are quality and tested and good for the people consuming them.”

On the flipside of that, I can also get involved on when the legislators or marijuana commission is making the rules and regulations. So I’ve spent a lot of time in the states that were working, and giving feedback to these commissions to say, “Make sure you have these precautions in your rules and regulations.” Hopefully, they’re written into the legislation so that it’s not an option – it’s just a standard. So, there’s no option to not test these meds.

In the new state processes, it’s absolutely mandatory. I’m working in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Michigan, and now it’s become a must. Testing is not an option.

So, what sorts of tests would you like to see implemented?

Well, I know there’s a bunch of articles coming out strictly in California, about the levels of mold that are in the products. So, you have to test for mold, pesticides, heavy metals … A lot of the new state processes are also regulating what types of nutrients used for when you’re growing cannabis. So, they’re actually picking the nutrients to say, “Here’s our list of nutrients, so you can use these, but some of the other ones that are toxic, you’re not allowed to use.” So, in my opinion, that’s obviously a step in the right direction. To make sure we have rules and regulations in place, so there starts to be a standard of operations.

I’ve been talking about this to a lot of people, and beyond the heavy metals and things of that nature, we’re finding that a lot of people aren’t getting the edibles, strains, and cannabinoids and terpenoids they want, at the doses they want. How would we start testing implementing tests for these?

For the extraction process, that’s a whole different ballgame. I like to tell clients that, you know, “It’s not smartest to go the butane route”, and make sure we know what solvents are in the products and what they’re using as cutting agents when they are producing vaporizer products, oils, tinctures and things like that.

So, lab and science is not necessarily my background, but from a general standpoint, all of those regulations are making sure that the plant product is safe not only from a flower standpoint, but also an extract standpoint.

What do you look for in a good dispensary, then?

Oh wow! My list is so long and I’ve been to so many now. I’ve probably been a part of opening about 10, and so there’s best practices that I like to go by. I like to make sure that it’s a clean and safe environment. I like to make sure that it has a little bit of style, in terms of the interior design, logos, marketing and so on. And really, the staff.

The staff are probably number 1 in my opinion. The staff really makes your business do well or fail. So you have to put a lot of time and energy into your team members. Into scripting. “What kind of music are they playing? What are they wearing? What are they saying to patients? How are they delivering messages to patients?”

And obviously, make sure that they have a little fun, and make sure the facility has a good culture. If you’re the owner of that business, making sure that you take care of your patient advisors and your security guards and every single employee that you have. A lot of those people are the activists. They’ve been a part of the industry a lot longer than even some of us.

So, for me, staffing and making sure they’re taken care of is probably one of the biggest concerns with a dispensary. I think that’s what makes a dispensary go really far.

Talking about staff at dispensaries, especially when we’re talking about cannabis as medicine … I’m not sure how well staff is trained for questions like “What do I need for cancer?” and so on. Many of them aren’t doctors or healthcare professionals, after all! How do we solve this problem?

It is this really tough space to navigate through, especially in markets that haven’t had cannabis forever. In California and Colorado, it’s part of the culture. In the new state markets, what we’ll do sometimes is bring somebody in from one of the older markets to get them up-and-running. From Day 1, when these dispensaries open, somebody comes in and says “Hey. I’m having pain here” or “I need something for my cancer.” If you give that patient the wrong product, their experience with cannabis could be damaged forever.

So, we all know someone who’s taken an edible and they’ve taken too much, and they were totally freaking out for 3 days. So, it’s really on us to make sure we are educating. A lot of times what we’ll do is take staff from the new state market and bring them into a market like Arizona, where it is regulated and have them sit and shadow one of the patient care advisors as a visitor in the facility.

They start to understand what types of questions, then it’s “education, education, education”. You have to have training. Leafly came up with a condition wheel, so you can ‘path’ patients into a particular kind of product, depending upon what they’re experiencing. The bad part is, it’s only a guide. We’re all humans and we’re all going to metabolize differently and we’re all going to react differently. It’s really trial and error with these patients.

But, in my opinion, it’s always best practice to start with a very, very small amount. A couple of milligrams. See how you interact with cannabis, and then up the ante. But starting your first time on 10 milligrams [of THC], you’re probably not going to have that nice of a day!

Did we carry on with our conversation? Of course we did! We asked what Sara’s favorite strain is (Durban Poison in a vaporizer, if you wanted to know), among many other things. As usual, we could probably talk to our guests all day about all things cannabis. But for better or for worse, we have lives to lead. Sara is obviously a very intelligent, eloquent and driven person. Those of you who are interested in what goes into cannabis dispensaries and how application processes should try and get in contact with people like Sara!

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