Every medical market comes with its own quips, caveats, catches and challenges. In Montana, however, the adaptations that have been necessary to participate in the industry are of a singular absurdity.
Montana legalized medical marijuana in 2004, but the intervening years have been rife with utter chaos: first, the program instituted a policy known as “tethering,” which required each patient to effectively enter into a monogamous relationship with a single dispensary. Furthermore, after rapid growth, the market was decimated by federal raids; a subsequent ruling limited each dispensary to serving a total of three patients; that law was eventually repealed.
Despite being a veritable dumpster fire of a year, 2020 has actually marked an exciting turning point for Montana’s medical marijuana program: in June, Senate Bill 265 went into effect and put an end to tethering. Now, with “untethering” in place, the state’s 38,000 medical patients have been granted, finally, the freedom to explore Montana’s roughly 240 dispensaries.
The change has, inevitably, forced the vertically-integrated market to adapt to the heightened competition: how can a dispensary attract new customers and retain its previously-tethered base? How can it set itself apart? What strategies can a dispensary employ to prepare for the potential of imminent adult-use legalization, which recently qualified for the November ballot?
Naturally, there is no single answer to this question, but Greenhouse Farmacy in Missoula (which is home to more dispensaries per capita than any other city in the country) has certainly hit on one solution: they launched their own line of branded gummies, High Road Edibles, in collaboration with two old friends of the business, Ben Miller and Michael Zens.
To work together in a vertically-integrated market, High Road effectively licenses their recipes and formulas to Greenhouse, who manufacture the products on-site.
While Montana’s program largely caters to patients with a need for high-dose products, High Road wisely embraces a mellower model: their mints contain 2.5 mg THC and their gummies, 5 mg (the company also manufactures a line of CBD-only gummies, mints and chocolates).
“As a dispensary that caters to an older generation that’s just getting into cannabis use, we found so many people for whom even 10mg was too much,” said Emmie Purcell, co-owner of Greenhouse Farmacy. “We thought doing a low dose where someone can start low and flow would be an ideal spot to start with edibles.”
They aren’t the only dispensary with such a model, but, as I discovered on a recent statewide tour of nearly two dozen dispensaries, High Road has created a product that is both tastier and classier than the vast majority of the competition. It doesn’t hurt that Miller is a veteran chef with a gift for nuanced flavor profiles: the indica-dominant “Unwind” gummies are as flavorful as the wild strawberries that dot the countless trails outside of town, and the sativa-dominant “Inspire” variety (a mix of green apple and peach) offer an impeccably clean and euphoric high.
We caught up with Miller and Zens to learn more about the product’s endearing origins, how their friendship elevated the company and how they are approaching the possibility of legalization in November.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
So, how did you guys meet in the first place?
Ben Miller: Mike and I met in 2003, freshman year, in the dorms at the University of Montana [in Missoula]. We lived across the hall from each other.
Michael Zens: We lived together through college. Ben went his own way, chef’d in a couple of different places. He came back in 2010. We’ve been hanging out since.
Would you consider yourselves…BFFs?
MZ (laughs): I guess. We hang out most days of the week. We work together. We don’t have kids. We’re always going outside, rafting, skiing.
How did High Road come together?
BM: It started it with my rediscovery of cannabis and enjoyment of edibles. I saw there was a lack of edibles in the market.
MZ: Greenhouse Farmacy didn’t have edibles; that’s where we had our medical cards when it was a tethered market. We never liked the taste of RSO [Rick Simpson Oil]. It doesn’t go down very well, but Ben bought some at some point, put it in the freezer and forgot about it. Later, we decided to melt down gummy bears –
MZ: – and put RSO in it. It was something we enjoyed for ourselves. It felt like there was a path to doing something interesting in Montana that people weren’t doing here yet.
It’s consistent, low-dose, things you see in other states that we think are best practices. There’s a good market for it here.
How long did it take to go from RSO-infused Haribo bears to High Road?
MZ: We were fooling around for a good year.
BM: We used Haribo for a few months, then started making our own gummy candy.
How does the division of labor work out?
BM: I do R&D, packaging, sales. Mike handles marketing design, web work. He makes sure we don’t go out of business. I make sure we have something to sell.
Amazing. What does your collaboration with Greenhouse Farmacy look like?
MZ: They have the technology to manufacture the product. We are contactors; we create the ideas and process.
We see THC and CBD as interchangeable in the product; it’s just an extract we’re putting in. The process is about the same for each. We’re able to hone recipes with our CBD products, and if we have a change we update the recipe for them [the actual manufacturing takes place on premises at Greenhouse Farmacy, who add THC into the various products].
MZ: We license the recipe and brand and sell the ingredients, labels and tins directly to [Greenhouse Farmacy]. We are a partner.
Why the smaller dose?
MZ: I never like a very heavy edible. It just locks me in the couch.
BM: We wanted to hit the market of people who are looking for 5 or 10mg. Our mints are 2.5 mg; that’s almost unheard of in this state.
MZ: That’s almost preparation for the recreational market, to be honest. That’s where those products probably fit the best.
How did you land on the specific flavors?
MZ: I like having more than one flavor in a tin [like strawberry and lemon, or peach and green apple].
BM: When we first started flavor development, it was winter. I was eating a lot of those [citrus] flavors. We wanted to find things that were as natural as possible, not wild blue raspberry.
BM: Exactly (laughs). Peach and green apple is a nostalgic flavor, like peach rings. It deviates a bit from the natural, but it’s delicious.
If adult-use passes in November, where do you see High Road fitting into the new market?
MZ: We want to grow past Missoula. It’s a great place, but people can benefit from a consistent edible [across the state]. They are the way to go. Gummies are the most popular by far.
That’s the thing with this industry: it’s always changing. You have to be up for the next thing coming. You have to be comfortable with that; what’s happening now won’t be in two years. I’m sure there will be more challenges but it finally feels like we have a stable product.
BM: Now the biggest challenge is keeping up with demand. Production time alone is a fair bit of late nights and weekends to keep up with everything.
MZ: We hit shelves in April. It was an opportune time, with untethering.
How has untethering impacted the business?
MZ: It feels like the amount of edibles [being consumed] is definitely increasing pretty dramatically.
What’s your rough guess?
That’s awesome. Last question for you: what do you think makes the Montana market special? What defines cannabis culture here?
BM: It’s active.
MZ: If you’re going mountain biking or relaxing on the river, instead of having a beer, have an edible.
BM: It’s like “California sober” [consuming cannabis but not alcohol]. We don’t drink. We find our products very beneficial to our lifestyles.
MZ: Everyone has two or three outdoor hobbies here: kayaking, hiking, skiing. Edibles are a complimentary component to that, and make that experience better.