Cassopolis, cannabis companies cooperate, aim to grow together – HORIZONS 2022

Published 4:20 pm Friday, June 17, 2022

CASSOPOLIS — Months before Michigan voters legalized recreational cannabis in 2018, Cassopolis took a symbolic stand against the industry. Four years later, two cannabis companies are contributing to the economic revitalization of the village and becoming active contributors to the community. 

Bud Express Provisions and Sunset Coast Provisions, the two operational cannabis companies in the village, opened up shop in 2021 and have since shown what being a part of the Cassopolis community means to them, made efforts to educate local residents about their products and worked to dispel the stigma long-attached to cannabis. Cassopolis Village Manager Emilie LaGrow, meanwhile, praised the companies for being good partners with the village, bringing in business to other local companies, filling a health care need locally and giving back to residents.

A significant push

Medical marijuana became a topic of discussion with the village council in 2017, after an inquiry about opening a dispensary and grow operation in the village. The presentation sparked debate about whether the medical cannabis industry should be welcomed in Cassopolis. 

Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz and Cass County Sheriff Richard Behnke spoke out against the industry, saying it would increase crime and hurt residents. Other community members argued medical marijuana could grow the village’s economy and help residents. In March of 2018, the village council symbolically voted 4-3 to opt out of the medical cannabis laws they were already technically opted out of.

After the 2018 recreational legalization bill passed, Village Manager Emilie LaGrow said her and other city officials continued to take a ‘wait-and-see’ approach while they listened to community members and observed other communities who opted in.

“The village went back and forth on it initially,” LaGrow said. “But then, we had a significant local push here to open up and change our ordinances to allow for licenses.”

For about a year, the village council and planning commission discussed the issue, what the ordinances would look like and what they wanted to see happen. Finally, in June 2020, the village rescinded its ordinances opting out and adopted two ordinances defining how cannabis businesses should operate. Additionally, LaGrow and other village leaders set standards for the type of people they wanted running companies within the village.

“First and foremost, we wanted people who understand that any business in a small community is a partner,” LaGrow said. “We don’t want businesses who operate in silos … we want them to be involved as much as they can in the community.”

Secondly, LaGrow said, as the village observed other communities with cannabis companies, it learned from others’ mistakes.  

“Some of those early licenses had people who were growers, but had no business background,” LaGrow said. “Others were business people who had no knowledge of the marijuana field. Some of those were not as successful, not as nice, and created some lawsuits for other communities. … We were hoping we could find some businesses that could check all those boxes.”

According to LaGrow, the village’s strict application and vetting process was able to weed out the subpar candidates, resulting in only serious businesses with high-character leadership.

“We really couldn’t have asked for better partners than what we got,” LaGrow said. “Both groups have been fantastic to work with. They are good community partners.” 

Now, with Bud Express open since last April and Sunset Coast open since July, LaGrow said Cassopolis is looking to strengthen its relationship with these companies, and use their success as a springboard for the village to bring in more industry to the village.

Growing together

Darrell Pritt, license owner for Bud Express, LaGrow and Village President David Johnson were very clear what they wanted from the beginning.

“They laid the stipulations down early,” Pritt said. “They told us, ‘This is what we expect. This is what we want you to do, and if you can do that, we can work with you,’ and I did what they asked of us.”

Pritt said when his business was doing something the village did not like, they communicated their position. When residents had concerns about their proposed dispensary site, Bud Express moved from 117 S. Broadway to 901 E. State St. 

“They never asked us to do anything that wasn’t fair, and that’s a good feeling because I’ve been in business a lot of years,” said Pritt, a West Virginia native who also owns Superior Tire & Axle in Elkhart. “We picked Cass because we see an opportunity here. You don’t have that hustle and bustle of a big town – and we didn’t want that. We wanted to get to know the people where we were and we wanted to grow with them.”

When LaGrow and Johnson informed Pritt of the village’s plans to revitalize the downtown, he said he was sold. In the past year, Pritt has seen the village complete its major streetscape project, which included infrastructure work as well as a makeover of the streets and sidewalks. He has also seen the completion of the Stone Lake project, which added a new beach, pier, pavilion and more to the downtown lakefront.

“They spent a lot of money on this place to make it better,” Pritt said. “None of that was done when I got here. … When the people running the town not only talk about making things happen, but actually make things happen, that makes you want to be a part of that town.”

LaGrow said both Bud Express and Sunset Coast have been ideal community partners so far, and have employed community members and utilized other local businesses in their projects.

“Our local restaurants and our hardware store have benefited from the construction going on there as well,” LaGrow said. “Honestly, I’m really pleased with what we have here. I haven’t gotten any complaints about the people these businesses have brought into town, them doing anything unsavory or changing the feel of our town. So, I think it’s going as well as we could have possibly hoped at this point.”

The changes are not without their detractors, but LaGrow said she hasn’t heard any specific complaints about how the companies are conducting their business. Some may even be coming around.

“I have heard from a few who are at this point now cautiously optimistic, instead of adamantly pessimistic,” LaGrow said. “They’re cautiously optimistic because they haven’t seen the fallout that you were expecting from them being here. I think for them, it’s still too early to tell and that’s okay. I think only time will tell what the legacy is … but I think we’re off to a good start.”

While she is pleased with the new businesses, LaGrow does not want the perception of the village to be ‘Cannasopolis,’ – a dispensary town with no other thriving businesses. She said she doesn’t believe that would be a fair assessment, either. 

“The irony is most people have no idea how much industry truly is here in this village,” LaGrow said. “Now we have even more, and are continuing to grow. … Yes, [the cannabis companies] are a springboard to growth, as are all of our businesses.”

For example, she pointed to the Midwest Energy and Communications SMART Park as an important new piece to expand growth in the village. Recently, Hydro Aluminum committed to building a recycling plant at the park and creating 70 jobs by 2023.

“We want our legacy to be that we’re doing things well,” she said. “That is for any of the things that we do. That’s for the infrastructure projects we do; that’s for the economic development we do. That’s the way we help our businesses that are here and the ones that are coming in, regardless of who they are.”

Dispelling the stigma

Sara Crouse, Marketing Manager at Highway Horticulture, which owns Sunset Coast Provisioning, has been on a campaign to educate Cass County residents about cannabis and dispel the negative stigma attached to its use.  She has already given presentations at the Cass County Council on Aging in Dowagiac, as well as the Dowagiac Rotary Club, and has plans to speak to churches and other organizations in the area.

“When you look into the history of cannabis, it’s actually very interesting – cannabis used to be used in medicine,” she said. “And then, after ‘Reefer Madness’ and propaganda, it got a bad rap for a lot of years. People are just now getting more comfortable and it has already changed dramatically.”

About five years ago, Crouse was diagnosed with severe Crohn’s Disease, resulting in a months-long hospital stay, multiple abdominal surgeries, an ileostomy bag and prescriptions for many different opioids, including Fentanyl.

“Traditional medicine saved my life … but when I was finally in my recovery, I was starting to notice that I was getting unwanted effects from the opioids,” she said. “I was starting to itch when it got time for my opioids, and I knew I was developing an addiction. It scared me, and I didn’t want to get hooked on something that I wasn’t going to be able to let go of. I’ve watched it destroy a lot of people in my life.”

Crouse said she began to reach out to friends and family for an alternative and learned more about medical cannabis.

“I was able to take cannabis and replace all my opioids and my Ativan for anxiety and sleep,” said Crouse, adding she used to take about 50 pills a day. “That’s why I do encourage people to go and ask the questions because there may be something that we can help replace, and maybe give you a better quality of life. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?”

Pritt, meanwhile, uses Bud Express for a similar purpose.

“We want to show there’s more than the stigma,” he said. “Our budtenders have to be certified to work here. We teach them about the CBD. We teach them about the RSO. We teach them about things that can help the individual that comes in the door to be here, but they don’t know why.”

CBD is an abbreviation for cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive chemical found in cannabis and hemp. RSO is short for Rick Simpson Oil – a highly-concentrated cannabis concentrate named after its creator, who used it to treat his skin cancer after reading a 1975 study by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The study showed cancer cell reduction in mice when treated with high doses of THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis that produces the high sensation. 

Pritt said his workers, several of whom are local residents, know the differences between these products because they use the products. They even helped a doctor of medicine find something for his wife because she was getting hooked on a painkiller, according to Pritt.

“This man is obviously very educated because he’s a doctor,” Pritt said. “He’s probably forgotten more about the human body than we’ll ever know, but yet he’s here in this store and I’ve seen him multiple times. That really made me feel good that somebody in our store taught him and showed him, this may work for your wife — and now he comes back and gets the same product every time.”

LaGrow said she is happy these companies are able to fill a health care need in the community.

“Some residents have said they appreciate the fact that they have places they can go to right here in their community to get some of that relief that they want,” LaGrow said. “Anytime we can provide services, whatever they are, to our residents here … I think that’s a good thing.” 

Giving back

Both Bud Express and Sunset Coast have embraced being a part of the community, and have each given back in multiple ways. Sunset Coast donated the fireworks for the city’s 2021 Beach Bash and helped out with supplies during Rock the Block when the village was short on helpers.

“They did a major run for us to make sure we were stocked up and ready to go for the next day,” LaGrow said. “Anytime we ask for help, they’ve been willing to step up.”

Bud Express, meanwhile, partnered with Michigan State University on a Giving Garden, which grows vegetables to be donated to Helping Hands of Cass County and distributed locally. They have donated to Christmas and Halloween festivities in the village, as well as hosted a Turkey Trot 5k to raise funds for either air conditioning in the schools or the Giving Garden.

Pritt even shared a story about how the company helped an elderly woman trim a tree that was blocking the view of the lake out of her window. Pritt said the company provided the funds to make sure that she was taken care of.

“Emilie was worried about this lady because she just wanted to look out her window and see the water,” Pritt said. “That’s a simple thing to make somebody really happy.”

Pritt said he intends to engage the community in other ways, such as hosting car shows and motorcycle shows. He wants to build goodwill with the whole community – not just his customers or supporters of cannabis – which includes offering jobs to local residents.

“We’re trying to hire as many people from this immediate area as we can,” said Pritt, adding he believes he can eventually offer 250 jobs between the dispensary and grow facilities. “We just feel like we’ll get a better person because it’s your community, it’s your town.”