Struggles of a Mom and Pop Pot-shop Owner
A veteran marijuana dispensary owner talks about how the business has changed over the years and the challenges he faces today.
By Patrick Sullivan | Feb. 15, 2020
Stephen Ezell has been in the legal pot business as long as than just about anyone in northern Michigan. He’s lived through the awkward, clumsy legalization of first medical and the recreational marijuana.
Ezell said that his business, Interlochen Alternative Health — a medical marijuana dispensary Ezell hopes to one day be licensed to sell recreational marijuana — survives a regulatory system that favors big business over mom and pop stores like his, which he runs with his wife, Barbara, and son, Jordan.
Northern Express sat down with Ezell to talk about the evolution of the marijuana business and about how a small-time operator like himself can manage to survive.
Northern Express: You’ve been in the marijuana business longer than a lot of people.
Stephen Ezell: I was one of the original people who got involved in it in Traverse City, yes. I’ve been involved in it since 2010.
Express: How did you get into it?
Ezell: My wife and I moved up here — we were from northwest Indiana — and we moved up here and were living in Acme when my wife came down with ovarian cancer. She discovered a little lump. They did a biopsy, and it was malignant. Right away she had to go to University of Michigan for surgery, and they set it up so she would get her chemo treatment up here. We were living by some people that were medical marijuana patients — it was kind of early in the program; it started in ’08 — and it kind of piqued my curiosity, so I started doing some research. When you’re confronted with a situation like that, you’re pretty much willing to try anything.
Express: And you found out that marijuana could help your wife …
Ezell: I was able to track down some gummies, some medicated candies. She had already been through three or four chemo treatments. She would come home and be fatigued, nauseous, and she’d basically just have to lay around for a day, and the next day she’d feel a little bit better, and in about three days she’s be fine. So, I started giving her one of the gummies — each one was 50mg of a combination of THC and CBD. I saw a dramatic improvement in a matter of three weeks. Literally, I would pick her up and take her home, and she would mow the lawn or I’d drop her off at Meijer’s to go shopping. People can say whatever they want to say. I’ve heard hundreds of naysayers. But I’ve seen it; they can’t convince me otherwise.
Express: And from there you decided to go into business?
Ezell: Back in ’09 or early 2010, there was a group that met once a week in Traverse City called the Grand Traverse Compassion Connection. I started attending the meetings, and I met a bunch of people in the industry. I saw an opportunity to get into business. I was actually contemplating doing it with another person, but they had a criminal record. I used to work for the U.S. Postal Service, and I retired after 40 years — never been arrested, had a clean record. Finally, it just became clear, why don’t I just do it myself? And so that’s what I did. We opened a dispensary in Traverse City, and we were there for about a year, and we also had one in Acme. And then we were shut down. They came in and shut everything down.
Express: The marijuana industry was kind of getting mixed messages from the state in those days.
Ezell: It’s been that way, and it still is. They were saying we were operating — in a legal gray area, they called it. The marijuana act had passed back in ’08, but there was no provision within the act to allow for dispensaries or brick-and-mortar stores. The original program was what they called a “caregiver” program — which meant you could be a caregiver and have up to five patients — but there still was no provision, in their eyes, for a brick-and-mortar store.
Express: Under that interpretation of the law, there never seemed to be a means of getting the drug into the hands of the medical marijuana patients who needed them.
Ezell: Well, it worked in other parts of the state, I’ll put it that way.
Express: It depended on what the local authorities wanted to do.
Ezell: Exactly. That’s what it all came down to. Whatever county you were in, if the prosecutor in that county wanted to turn his blind eye to it, they allowed them to flourish, and if the prosecutor in your county was opposed to it, they would issue cease and desist letters and shut everything down. That was ultimately what happened.
Express: So, your first businesses got shut down. But that wasn’t the end of it.
Ezell: Another year or two went by, and I was starting to get more actively involved again, and there was no place available in Traverse City, and so I came out here to Green Lake Township. My wife’s a big fan of Bud’s Coffee Shop [an eatery located in Interlochen]. I met the Green Lake Township zoning administrator, and I went in and talked to her about the possibility of doing it here, and she went into her file cabinet and pulled a letter from the township attorney that said it was in a gray area, so you could not operate a dispensary in Green Lake Township. So that was that. And then, I’d say maybe a few weeks later, I was at Bud’s, and the zoning administrator happened to be walking out, and I waved at her, and she came over the car and said, “Stop into my office. I’ve got something you might be interested in.” And she said the township attorney had softened his stance on the marijuana thing.
Express: So that’s how you ended up in this location in Interlochen, next to what used to be Ric’s grocery store. When did that happen?
Ezell: That was in 2013. I started looking and happened to find this place here that is owned by Brad Oleson, the Oleson Corporation, and so when I broached the subject, he said, “Well, we’re a corporation, we meet once a week, and I’ve got to run it by the old man.” He said he didn’t think so, but he’d try. A week later I get a call from Brad, and he’s laughing. He said, “I brought it up, and the old man thought it was funny as hell.” He said go for it. I signed a lease, and we opened up here probably a month or so later.
Express: But that wasn’t the end of your troubles.
Ezell: We opened in May of 2013. And we operated until October of ’17 — four and a half years. And one afternoon on a quiet day like today, they walked in. Six or eight cops, and they had a cease and desist letter. And basically, their statement was, “If you guys want to operate, you’re going to have to go through the state licensing process.” And so that’s what we did. We started getting our application together, and it was so complex. I was naive and thought I’d be able to do it myself. In reality I ended up having to hire a lawyer, and it cost me $20,000 just to get the application in.
Express: This was around the time when the state recognized the caregiver system was not working, and they tried to make accommodations for people like you …
Ezell: Yes. It was the Marijuana Facilities Licensing Act, which was passed, I want to say, in late 2016. And that cleared up all the gray area. And so, we went through the whole licensing process. It took forever. Expensive as hell. Every time you turned around there was a $6,000 non-refundable application fee to the state. You had to hire a lawyer. You had to hire a CPA to do a capitalization background check on you. Everything. Only my wife and I were on the application, so it couldn’t have been simpler — but 933 pages is what we submitted to the state. And it took them forever to review it all. Ultimately, you go before a board. We passed four to one — one naysayer on there. That gets you to step two. Step two is when you actually have your facility. They walk through and tell you you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to have security, you’ve got to add cameras. Fire alarms. We’ve got 920 square feet here, and we’ve got 16 cameras. We were jumping through all those hoops. And we finally got everything up to snuff, and they finally issued our license on Dec. 4, 2019, only to find out at that point in time, there was no weed available.
Express: So that was over two years that you were shut down. How do you get supplied now?
Ezell: We can only buy from licensed growers. They are throughout the state. I don’t even know them. There’s a website you can go on. It’s all got to be tested. That’s $500. Then you’ve got to pay to have it brought from point A to point B by a third-party secured transporter — that’s another $500. And basically, when we got that license, I made 30 phone calls before I was able to track down anything.
Express: How is going now?
Ezell: It’s gotten better. And it will continue to get better, because there are more licensed growers that are up and running.
Express: That was quite a struggle to go through just to be able to reopen your business. What do you think of the way Traverse City has approached medical marijuana under the new rules?
Ezell: They had their whole lottery thing. It was a disaster. Traverse City, as long as I’ve been up here, has always promoted ‘buy local, shop local,’ blah, blah, blah. And basically, they gave away 13 very valuable licenses, and all 13 went to people from outside the area. I felt I was just as qualified as anybody, but it was a lottery, and they draw names out of a hat, essentially.
Express: Your name was in the hat, but you didn’t get drawn?
Ezell: Correct. And I understand the whole lottery thing, and I don’t mean to make it sound like sour grapes, but here’s the part that bugged me — we went to the city hall, and we spoke to an assistant city clerk, and she told us, me and my attorney, that they were going to allow one applicant per address. So, let’s say for example there’s 709 Garfield that’s in qualifying zoning — they would only allow one application with that address. So we sat down with a prominent realtor in Traverse City and scoured the zoning map and determined that there was 35 or 36 potential locations. Now they’re going to give out 13 licenses. Thirteen out of 36, that’s 38 percent, so we took a calculated risk and put in our $5,000 [application fee].
Express: $5,000 is a lot of money.
Ezell: And on the day of the drawing, there were 72 [applicants]. The way it was explained to us was that somebody threatened them with a lawsuit or something, and so they changed right in midstream and allowed multiple applicants per address. And we were there the day of the drawing, and that place over on Garfield, The Cured Leaf, they had at least six or eight applications for that address alone. So, we went from 38 percent chance down to a 14 percent chance or something.
Express: It sounds like you don’t think the marijuana rules are set up so a little guy — a mom and pop store – can succeed.
Ezell: In Traverse City, we were looking for a qualified location. There were applicants that were going around, they were using realtors, and let’s say you had a piece of property that qualified, and let’s say you were wanting to sell it for $300,000. The applicants were coming by and offering $500,000. They were bumping up prices. It was unbelievable. And there’s numerous examples of that. And a lot of those people who bought property or signed lease agreements at those elevated rates didn’t get licenses either. Who can do that? Keep in mind: Every marijuana place downstate operated from day one and were never shut down. So, if they had a dispensary in Ann Arbor or a dispensary in Ferndale, they’ve been making money since day one. Are they not at the advantage when they can come up here with a suitcase full of cash and bump up the prices? And that’s exactly what happened.
Express: So, despite your concern that the system is rigged against the little guy, you feel like you’re in a pretty good position right now?
Ezell: I do feel like I’m in a good position, and I feel like I’ve earned this position. I haven’t bought this position, do you know what I’m saying? I mean, we did our due diligence. I never operated for a minute without local permission. We’re going to be successful, we’re going to deal with Green Lake Township, we’re not going to hire lobbyists, we’re going to go in by ourselves like we always did, and we’ll get it done ,and we’ll be successful here, I have no doubt whatsoever. It’s just been frustrating, getting started, and the way that it’s all played out. It’s just been a ball of confusion from the beginning. Like even right now, people come in here thinking it’s a recreational store, even with that sign on the door and that sign over there. They will actually argue with you.
Express: I guess it is hard to understand: Marijuana is legal, you’ve got it; why can’t they have it?
Ezell: I get it. Believe me, I understand that fully. And another thing that again penalizes us here in Grand Traverse County, and I’m not exaggerating, half the people that come to the store since we’ve opened, their [medical marijuana] cards have expired. Now, if you’re a card holder in this area, and everything’s been closed for two years, why would you go renew your card? Why would you spend $200 to renew your card when there’s no place to go? Half the people that are coming in here, their cards have expired, and we can’t sell to them.