ARIZONA — Three years after they started, the staff of Uncle Herbs on Saturday can finally exhale with the opening of the area’s only medical marijuana dispensary.
“To us it seems almost surreal to finally open our doors,” said Tiffany Young with Uncle Herbs. “The intensity of this project has encompassed every moment of our time, resources and talent.”
Uncle Herbs, at 200 N. Tonto St.,Payson, Arizona, will be the latest dispensary to open in the state since the Arizona Department of Health Services awarded 98 licenses through a lottery drawing in August last year.
Ten groups applied for the dispensary license allotted to Northern Gila County so they could grow and dispense medical cannabis to cardholders.
Young said the euphoria of winning the sole license for the area quickly wore off as they realized the magnitude of the problems they faced in trying to open a dispensary in just one year.
Could they find a space at least 500-feet from any school, meet town codes, follow state guidelines, get the support of area officials and residents and still have enough time and money to remodel the building and grow a supply of medical marijuana?
In the end, they spent twice as much as they planned, but nearly everything else would work out. They found a location 1,000 feet from the nearest school and worked with town staff to meet code requirements. They also worked with the state health department to meet the requirements of the law and even figured out how to barter with other dispensaries for medical marijuana.
“We owe a special humble and heartfelt thank you to the community of Payson who has been not only supportive, but instrumental in making things happen,” Young said.
On Wednesday, crews were still installing display cases, setting up computers and testing several new edible products at the dispensary.
Operations manager Kaylynn Arnold said the essentials were in place for Saturday’s opening, but they still needed chairs and a few other things.
Arnold said one of the biggest challenges was designing a dispensary that was both secure and welcoming. Several dispensaries around the state have barred windows, bank teller-like counters and stale, austere interiors.
Uncle Herbs has a vintage industrial feel, with old-timey looking fixtures and faux brick walls. Arnold said it has a 1920s pharmaceutical flair when cannabis was dispensed legally in pharmacies across the country.
In one corner, the dispensary has a general store feel where cardholders can buy pipes and cases. In another corner sits a glassed-in kitchen where patients can watch staff concoct edibles. Along the back wall, a counter with display cases shows off buds.
The Payson dispensary is unique in Arizona with a garden, kitchen and dispensary floor under one roof.
While Uncle Herbs scrambled to meet the state’s one-year deadline to open, on Wednesday a Maricopa County Superior Court judge declared that requirement unreasonable and ordered the state to give dispensaries more time.
So far, the AZDHS has approved 61 dispensaries for operation.
Uncle Herbs is the only dispensary selling infused ice cream, Young said. They already have half a million orders for the ice cream, primarily from other dispensaries.
They plan to trade much of the ice cream with other dispensaries for medical cannabis, since they don’t have enough of their own product ready to dispense.
“Currently we are cultivating a large variety of cannabis strains in our nursery/laboratory that have been genetically selected to provide both variety and quality medicine,” Young said.
They plan to use all of the plant for various products, including edibles and lotions.
Young said the dispensary is more like a laboratory as they test various strains, develop products and figure out accurate ways to measure and dispense the medicine.
She said they are working on “industry innovation in cannabis science through clinical trials, technology and education.”
The small staff includes Young and her husband, Arnold plus Andrew Provencio and a few more close friends.
Young said they have been inundated with offers for additional financial backing, help, advice and employment. They have turned down most of those due to financial concerns. While they held interviews, they decided to hold off on hiring anyone full-time.
“Mostly, we are working as owners/operators, keeping within our budget,” Arnold said. “At Uncle Herbs, we need to further understand after opening what the needs are for our patients within the community, hence patient feedback is very important to us so we can quickly adapt accordingly.”
For now, everyone wears multiple hats.
“That is, bud tenders can check in patients, work in the bakery or general store as well as perform other duties as needed,” she said.
The team decided on the name Uncle Herbs early on. Young said it had that small-town family vibe.
The team also found a location off Main Street for a hydroponic store, Sunlight and Soil, which they opened earlier this year. Young said they needed so many products to start growing at Uncle Herbs that paying wholesale prices proved a huge money saver.
Money has been a concern. With so much of the business cash-only, they struggled to raise capital, Young said. They also encountered construction setbacks, which helped double their total costs.
Still, Uncle Herbs should make money handily with an ounce costing $350 to $425 and the 38,800 cardholders statewide able to buy 5 ounces each per month. The town could see a boost in sales tax revenue as well.