By Vlad Alforov
Nick and Tiffany Duty kept an eye on medical cannabis coming from Colorado and California, rolling toward Oklahoma like a funnel of smoke. The couple saw it as an opportunity to start something new.
“We saw things kind of blowing up here with new trends,” Nick said.
As of Dec. 2, 2019, the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority has approved 220,830 individual patient licenses, according to the OMMA’s report. This means that around 5.6% of the state population are medical cannabis patients. The report also stated that OMMA has already approved 1,535 dispensary licenses.
In August, when licensed marijuana users made up 4.1% of the state population, Oklahoma was the fastest growing market for medical marijuana in the average number of daily patient increases, according to the Marijuana Business Daily report.
“Growth (of medical cannabis in Oklahoma) is bolstered by low barriers of entry, including the fact there’s no list of qualifying conditions for patients,” according to the report.
The Dutys, both 37, moved to Norman from Texas about eight years ago. They also run a drag strip in Noble, but wanted to branch out, Nick said.
That’s how Pharmhouse Cannabis Co. originated.
The dragway, which his family has owned for around 50 years, operates March through November and attracts several thousand visitors a year, Nick said. He met Tiffany there, too.
Now, they are running the dispensary and the race track together.
Making cannabis business more inviting, overcoming social stigma
Nick and Tiffany aimed to make their Pharnhouse stand out from gas stations and questionable, dark-corner-looking places.
“Well, you might have to go pick up my stuff, too,” Tiffany said when Nick got his medical marijuana card back in February 2019. “I don’t want to go to those places.”
Both Nick and Tiffany received their medical cards for anxiety and sleep disorder treatment.
For Nick, it was a good enough catalyst.
“We thought to put something together for people to feel more comfortable,” he explained, where they could come, look around, ask questions and feel like they are not in a back alley involved in illegal business.
The Dutys try to reach out and be part of the community through the two businesses they are involved in, Nick said. They are “adult business type folks,” as he coined it.
The Dutys began the Pharmhouse planning in June 2019. They said they felt ready for tough competition.
Now, the dispensary looks spacious and well-lit. Its interior is largely furnished with wooden panels, which creates a homestyle vibe about the place.
“Personally, I don’t want to feel like I am going into a drug den,” Tiffany said. “There’s got to be people out there who feel that way.”
When a 70-year-old lady came by the dispensary recently, Nick recalled, she said her son was trying to talk her into trying concentrates — marijuana products that look like wax. Concentrates are typically highly potent since they contain a large percentage of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), a psychoactive chemical found in the resin secreted by glands of the marijuana plant.
“She was here looking at all these dab kits that I’m not even sure how to work with,” Nick said smiling.
“Whether you buy it or not,” he said, “you should be able to come around, get some experience … and learn how to make better decisions.”
The Dutys said some people don’t know that they can visit a dispensary without a medical card. In fact, Pharmhouse offers a variety of cannabis-related products customers can purchase as long as they are 18 and if the item has no THC in it.
Tiffany said she also wanted their customers to feel like they are at an actual business, where the visitors are not ashamed of shopping and where there is no stigma attached.
“There are a handful of people who, no matter what, aren’t going to be interested in the cannabis business,” Nick said, “just like they are not … interested in drag racing.”
The reason, he said, is that the residents are not willing to change their perspective about cannabis, since it’s still widely perceived as an illegal narcotic.
“On June 26, 2018, 57% of Oklahoma voters approved State Question 788, which legalized marijuana for any medical use on a doctor’s recommendation,” according to the Tulsa World article.
“SQ788 became effective July 26, with the state mandated to start accepting patient applications just a month later.”
Nick and Tiffany said they try to break down the stereotypes about cannabis. “There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s all being done above board to help people,” Nick said.
There are numerous restrictions in place as well. For instance, vendors can be held liable for advertising their product as a cure for customers’ high blood pressure.
“All marijuana marketing or advertising content must not contain any statement or illustration that may be misleading, promotes irresponsible use, promotes the effectiveness of the product for the treatment of any condition, or depicts a minor consuming the product,” according to Sooner Marketing Solutions, a Tulsa-based marketing company that advertises dispensaries.
“We can only give suggestions and (share) personal experience,” Tiffany said.
She added that at Pharmhouse they try to make sure there is always somebody with a medical card at the counter who has tried out most of their products and could explain how they felt about it, what it did for them or how it tasted. Those are most of their customers’ questions.
There are eight employees at Pharmhouse besides the Dutys. Some of them, Nick said, 20 years ago had cannabis-related legal issues but now work at a place where they get paid to sell it.
“And they are passionate about it,” Tiffany added.
“I think it’s important that (such services are) offered in a place your grandma would feel comfortable coming in and buying something,” Nick said. “If grandma approves, then everybody approves.”
Location with a history
Because of the stigma, cannabis startups have a difficult time finding property owners willing to lease to a dispensary, Nick said.
“We spent two months looking at locations, and we have pretty much given up,” he said. Most of the available places were either out of the way or too expensive.
“They think you are just a punk going to ruin their store and the area,” Nick said.
And then they found a building at Lindsey Street and College Avenue, a day after it was put on listings.
“It was kind of perfect timing,” Nick said. “We couldn’t really ask for a … better spot.”
The house was built in the 1930s. One of the original owner’s granddaughters still lives next door.
It was built as a butcher shop. Nick and Tiffany still have an industrial refrigerator, used for hanging and freezing beef, in the Pharmhouse saloon.
The Dutys are currently figuring out how to make use of this focal piece of decor.
Seasoned Norman residents may remember the building as JJ’s Pizza Stop, which kept its doors open for over 26 years, according to the OU Daily article.
Then, in 2017, it was leased to become Barn Burger & Grill. Two years later, there’s cannabis instead of burgers.
Coming from drag racing, where safety concerns are raised on a regular basis, Nick and Tiffany are no strangers to overcoming obstacles when it comes to being a part of the community.
The dispensary’s opening on Nov. 11 was hammered by 33-degree weather and rain, but about a dozen people showed up anyway, according to the owners.
“It’s definitely a slower start than anticipated,” Nick said. He added that it can take up to six months before they will be able to figure out the Pharmhouse’s profitability.
“We’ve got lots of ideas,” Nick said. He added that game days are typically a good opportunity for him, Tiffany and their employees to “go outside, welcome people” and advertise their dispensary.
But it is not the weather that makes things complicated for the Dutys.
“It’s hard to figure out where you are at, just because of the lack of advertising,” Nick said. “We came in knowing that it’s going to be a long road, and we’re here for a long haul.”
The owners said that it is extremely difficult to advertise a dispensary since few places will take their ad money. “No Google Ads, no YouTube, no social media — it’s very limited,” they explained.
“You just have to build up an experience,” Nick said. “You can’t just say, ‘We have flower on sale for $10’ because they will close your account.”
Since marijuana is still illegal under federal law, the best way to advertise a dispensary may be to consult certain cannabis communities that mimic social media, like Weedmaps or Leafly. These companies will find a place for the owners to run their ads, but it is more expensive and less effective, according to the Dutys.
“And so we throw munchies to people, Twinkies and what-not with (Pharmhouse) brand stickers on them,” Nick said.
Despite the issues with advertising, the dispensary has already built their clientele with local fraternities and sororities. Repeat customers, referrals and word of mouth are their PR strategies of choice, Nick said.
Even some of their employees are college students, alumni and current or former fraternity pledges.
Nick said he likes Norman and OU for their sense of community.
“I just think it’s neat to be a part of this,” Nick said. “It’s cool to be involved with something so bustling of activity, so many people hanging out and having a good time.”
He said at Pharmhouse they often meet people trying to work their way through a difficult time in their lives.
“The college kids are going to be here,” Nick said. “Now, we want to reach out to people who are not going to see us every day.”
Older Norman residents, Nick said, are the ones likely to have medical conditions that cannabis can help with, but they are also the ones likely to feel uncomfortable to come in.
Medical marijuana is used to treat various conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. But it’s not yet proven to help with many of these conditions, partially due to the lack of research, according to WebMD.
“We want to be a part of the community,” he added. “Not just ‘Oh, they opened another dispensary down the street.’ ”
Another major obstacle the Dutys face at Pharmhouse is its cash-based operation.
“Banks (with a federal license) that handle marijuana money can be charged with money laundering,” according to The Economist article. “Pot businesses, therefore, are on the whole stuck working with cash (.)”
“Anything that’s regulated by the federal government, we can’t have it,” Nick said. “State-licensed banks will let you open an account, but it’s very expensive — $15,000-20,000 per year in bank fees.”
Nick said that in his opinion this makes his business less safe and more difficult. Besides, it makes his insurance more expensive.
“Everybody knows it, and that’s a problem,” Nick said. The fourth day after the opening Pharmhouse experienced an attempted break in.
The intruders tried to kick through the back wall at 2 a.m. but ran off with the alarm.
“It seemed very routine to (the police,)” Nick said.
Police officer Ashlie Livingston said she is not surprised that this kind of crime is common.
She explained that since cannabis used to be illegal and that there are still people who can access it only illegally, these individuals are more likely to horn into storages with large quantities of cannabis.
“I think it’s smart that cannabis companies lock up their drugs,” she said. “They better have safes.”
Livingston said she recently worked a burglary at the Fire Leaf dispensary just south of Highway 9 near Chautauqua Avenue. “The guy got away with a grinder because they locked all of their product up,” she shared.
These two instances of cannabis-related thefts were not the only ones in Norman, according to the KFOR article.
“You still have those bad guys that are drug dealers, and you are basically saying that there is a whole building of it,” Livingston said.
“It’s definitely not as simple as I imagined it when we first got into it,” Nick said. “It’s not as simple as buying marijuana and selling it at a higher price — when you actually get into it and do it, it’s definitely a wake-up call.”
Given the medical cannabis fervor in Oklahoma, Nick Duty remains optimistic about his business’s future. He said he thinks Oklahomans will keep getting licensed until the rate settles at 7-8% of the state population.
That number, he said he believes, will remain fairly stable until the question is tackled on the federal level.
“I don’t see in any way, shape or form that it does not become nationally accepted and probably recreational in most states.”
By Vlad Alforov