Plainview currently has more than 30 marijuana collectives that use the online platform to meet and form. Lee’s working on signing up existing dispensaries looking to expand beyond their brick-and-mortar operations. Dispensaries pay around $700 a year and $5 a patient on his platform; patients pay nothing for the service.
He argues it makes for a good economic model for “mom and pop” growers and distributors, given the significant startup costs of a typically run dispensary.
But if legalization down the road makes these dispensaries the equivalent of the local high-end coffee shop, they’ll need to differentiate themselves.
“Some try to differentiate on price,” says Lee. “But they do a lot of things to differentiate now, like offering holistic services or wellness advice.”
Some test for molds and chemical composition to assure quality, a hallmark of the artisanal food movement.
But as dispensaries face their own challenges—local government crackdowns, ongoing security needs and intervention by federal authorities—Lee says they’re still marking up their product by 100 percent or more to compensate for their own risks. That means less for growers.
He says farmers have seen prices drop from $5,000 per pound to $1,600 per pound in recent years.
“It’s called compassionate care," Lee says of the medical marijuana dispensary model currently in effect in California. “But I don’t see much compassion in the prices.”
Like with other agricultural products, smaller marijuana farmers may have to band together and form cooperatives to get better deals for distributors and provide effective marketing, says Shermain Hardesty, director of the small farm program at University of California at Davis.
“Cooperatives are often mainly used as a risk management, stretching out sales over a whole year rather than relying on a single client,” she says, providing them with safety afforded to larger producers with a bigger balance sheet.
Plainview’s Lee says he already heard talk of growers banding together in California’s Humboldt county, also in the so-called Emerald Triangle. “You could see a growers’ union,” he says.
Agribusiness In The Wings?
Most large agribusiness producers and distributors wouldn’t comment on any marijuana cultivation plans while it’s still largely illegal.