Oklahoma Land Rush

Despite being one of the most conservative states in the country, Oklahoma has embraced rapid change with its cannabis industry, bringing thousands of entrepreneurs to the forefront

With more than 9,500 cannabis business licenses already issued in Oklahoma, ambitious operators are rushing to gain a foothold in the most crowded marijuana market in the entire country, an industry that exploded almost overnight.

Before Oklahoma residents voted overwhelmingly to approve State Question 788 — only 43.1% of voters opposed it — marijuana was completely outlawed. Twelve days after the election, draft regulations were proposed. Four days later, then-Governor Mary Fallin signed the state’s first medical marijuana rules into law. In comparison to the lightning pace of everything else, it took an eternity for the state to begin accepting applications — 43 days passed between Fallin’s initial go-ahead and the opening of the state’s online application portal.

The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority began rubber-stamping permits almost immediately — rejecting only about 4.9% of business license applications over the first 17 months of the program. As of January 31, 2020, Oklahoma had granted nearly 6,000 producer licenses and more than 2,300 dispensary licenses, as well as more than 247,000 medical cards for patients.

Jesse Tischauser, co-owner of Red Dirt Sungrown, a state-licensed cannabis grower, says he remembers reading about how much Colorado’s population grew following legalization and expects Oklahoma’s population to jump by 5% as a result of the cannabis boom.

But even with a surge of new residents and patient numbers on the steady rise, it’s nearly impossible not to imagine an eventual crash due to the sheer number of operators.

“Unfortunately, our state is not very populous or prosperous, and over 80% of those business licensees will fail,” he says. “The good news for patients is that Oklahoma should have the cheapest cannabis in America as a result.”

 

An aerial view of the 13-acre complex of Guthrie Greenhouses, the parent company of Red Dirt Sungrown. Photos courtesy Red Dirt Sungrown.

Red Dirt Sungrown

While Oklahoma’s nascent cannabis industry has sprouted thousands of new businesses, it’s also attracted a few with far deeper roots. In the case of Red Dirt Sungrown, that horticultural legacy goes back 127 years. Its parent company, Guthrie Greenhouses, is the oldest and largest wholesale greenhouse in Oklahoma, originally opening as Capital City Greenhouses in 1892.

Herb Seuhring joined the company in 1985 as a grower, eventually working his way up to general manager, before purchasing the six-acre facility in 1995. His daughter Tara, a fourth-generation horticulturalist, and her husband, Jesse Tischauser, joined in 1997. Today, in addition to the flower and vegetable operations, the trio owns and operates Red Dirt Sungrown (medical marijuana) and Herb’s Hemp Farm (hemp).

“Since 1995 we have managed to double our acreage to over 13 acres and our annual revenue has increased nearly 700%,” Jesse Tischauser says. “We have dedicated three acres to cannabis production and will be building another one to two acres per year over the next five years.”

While cannabis is a relatively new addition to the farm, Tishchauser says the family was lucky to get a six-month head start due to receiving its hemp license in June 2018.

“We began retrofitting our greenhouses for cannabis production and implementing a modified version of Herb’s old chrysanthemum schedule, which revolves around a weekly harvest of over 1,000 cannabis plants,” he says. “We now have over 8,000 plants in flower at all times.”

The company has also partnered with Tanner, Drew and Hunter Fielding to produce a concentrates brand called Sunday Extracts.

 

Marijuana Venture: What are your thoughts on the Oklahoma market?

 

Jesse Tischauser: It has been completely unpredictable because our program is so different than any other state. By the time this article is published we will have more than 250,000 patients, which is roughly 6.5% of our state’s population. No other state has had that kind of per-capita enrollment with a medical program, so we feel very lucky to be here.

The oldest known photo of Capital City Greenhouses, circa 1910. The company, since renamed Guthrie Greenhouses, has been in operation since 1892.
To the best of our knowledge that is the original owner Elijah Furrow or his son John in the orchid or violet house. The photo was labeled 1910 on the back. It is the oldest photo we have from our business. I have attached our next oldest photo from the 1930’s.

MV: What do you see as the pros and cons of a program that takes a fairly free-market approach to licensing and patient registration?

 

JT: Living in a capitalist country we all understand the benefits of a free market. The best, brightest and hardest-working people and businesses will survive and thrive. We will eventually have the best cannabis in the country here simply because we have not limited who can participate. Patients will be the ones who decide which products and businesses are the best and ultimately who succeeds and survives.

There are companies here that are getting a chance to compete that never would have received licensing elsewhere. Some of these companies may be poised to change the industry with their innovations. Look at our neighbors to the east, Missouri and Arkansas. When you limit the number of licenses, you aren’t awarding those licenses to the companies with the best products or cheapest prices. You are awarding licenses to the companies that score the highest on their applications. Those application scores have minimal significance, if any, when it boils down to which companies will produce the best medicine for the patients.

Of course, there are negatives to our free market. We have so many licensees it is physically impossible for the OMMA to regulate everyone and everything going on at this early juncture. So we see lots of businesses that are operating in ways that are not always in the best interest of the patient.

 

MV: Do you think there’s a chance that licensing so many producers and dispensaries could backfire in Oklahoma, as the competitive landscape pushes operators to cut corners?

 

JT: It is human nature to take the easy road when it presents itself. So yes, as the going gets tough there will be lots of businesses cutting corners by doing unscrupulous things in an effort to profit or simply survive. I hope that as an industry we can flush out those seedy businesses that aren’t doing things with the best of intentions. In states with fewer licensees, those that don’t get a license or fail to survive the competition usually turn to the black market to do business. I am hopeful that the black market won’t exist here in Oklahoma for much longer because our free-market approach should provide patients with the highest-quality, lowest-cost medicine, and the black market won’t be able to compete.

 

MV: Have you seen much opposition to medical marijuana in Oklahoma, a state that went from full prohibition to a market with thousands of licensed businesses and hundreds of thousands of registered patients in just about a year?

 

JT: Oklahoma is a very conservative state, smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt, so we have experienced a lot of opposition to our very loose medical cannabis program.

We have even seen opposition to the now-fully-federally-legal hemp program while exhibiting our hemp business at the annual farm show. One elderly farmer actually came up to Herb shaking his finger in his face, telling him “It’s all the devil’s lettuce.”

I don’t think our Legislature would have passed a medical cannabis program at this time. Thankfully our state constitution gives the people the power to propose legislative measures and constitutional amendments without the Legislature or governor’s approval.

 

MV: What is Red Dirt Sungrown’s approach/philosophy on producing cannabis products for the medical market?

 

JT: Our approach to cannabis is simple: produce the best possible plants using the lowest input costs possible. The heart of that low-cost philosophy is in our name, “Sungrown.” This industry is full of indoor cannabis growers who emphasize that they are using organic practices and are trying to be environmentally sustainable, yet they are all missing the most important organically sustainable component, the sun.

Even the best indoor growers using the best grow lights cannot replicate the effect the sun has on the cannabinoid, terpenoid and flavonoid profiles of the cannabis plant. You must give any plant real sunlight for it to be the best plant it can possibly be. If cannabis was never illegal people would have never been forced underground to grow it and flower prices would be a fraction of what they are today. As our country and the world moves closer and closer to full legalization you will see less and less indoor-grown cannabis and that will be a good thing for the entire industry and especially for consumers.

Redbird completed its 6,000-square-foot indoor grow facility in August 2019 and is in the process of building out another 85,000 square feet of cultivation space. Photos by Hutch and Futch.

Redbird Bioscience

One of the companies racing to be a leader on the production side is Redbird Bioscience, a Stilwell-based cultivator and processor led by founder and chairman Bill Thurman. The company has moved aggressively toward its goal of becoming the dominant supplier of medical cannabis products since beginning operations in October 2018.

In August 2019, Redbird completed its 6,000-square-foot indoor cultivation and processing center, nicknamed “Little Bird,” and it is in the final stages of its 65,000-square-foot “Big Bird” cultivation and processing center, as well as a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse.

 

Marijuana Venture: What are your thoughts on the Oklahoma market?

 

Bill Thurman: Oklahoma is the fastest growing medical cannabis market in the United States. There are more than 247,000 medical cards issued to date. This tops the 10 fastest-growing medical marijuana markets based on average patient growth. In fact, Oklahoma has surpassed the number of medical cardholders in Colorado during the peak of the state’s medical cannabis market, despite Oklahoma’s comparatively small population.

Without the support, diligence and effort by Oklahoma’s state officials, the accelerated implementation of this program would not have been possible. With Oklahoma’s unlimited business licensure model and streamlined approval process, numerous small business operations have sprung up across the state, which are able to provide an incredibly diverse product selection for consumers. This abundance of choice results in the need for more education on the benefits of certain strains, formulations and delivery methods to best treat Oklahoma’s increasing patient population and to acquire a better understanding of R&D and adherence to quality standards.

The Oklahoma market is bigger than initially meets the eye. Oklahoma also allows medical cardholders in surrounding states to obtain a reciprocal card to make purchases in its dispensaries. This will greatly benefit surrounding states that have a less robust medical program. Additionally, the potential adult-use legalization will further accelerate the adoption of cannabis in the Oklahoma market.

 

MV: What do you see as the pros and cons of a program that takes a fairly free-market approach to licensing and patient registration?

 

BT: The advantage is that patients relying on medical cannabis products will be able to purchase higher quality products at lower prices due to increased competition. While a greater number of businesses will cause poorly managed operators to fail at a greater pace, Oklahoma’s free-market approach is unequivocally better for patients.

Redbird embraces this approach as we are confident in both the quality of our cannabis and the competitiveness of our pricing, driven by our economies of scale.

Redbird Bioscience is one of nearly 6,000 cannabis producers to be licensed in Oklahoma so far. Photo by Hutch and Futch.

MV: Do you think there’s a chance that licensing so many producers and dispensaries could backfire in Oklahoma, as the competitive landscape pushes operators to cut corners?

 

BT: Not if the open licensing model is coupled with strict enforcement. Redbird is a strong proponent of stringent regulations with firm consequences for operators that skirt the rules that are designed to protect the patient population of Oklahoma.

We believe that the cannabis industry, as a whole, is fundamentally pharmaceutical and should be regulated as such. This will ensure that conscientious businesses thrive in this space while dubious producers and dispensaries are forced out.

 

MV: Have you seen much opposition to medical marijuana in Oklahoma, a state that went from full prohibition to a market with thousands of licensed businesses and hundreds of thousands of registered patients in just about a year?

 

BT: Support for medical cannabis has been overwhelming at both the state and local level. When we first announced plans to build out our 38-acre campus, we received tremendous support from our community. Not only are there countless individuals in Oklahoma that are now benefiting from medical cannabis, but the development of this program also provides valuable tax revenue to the state and offers employment opportunities to economically depressed communities.

We are grateful and humbled to be so warmly welcomed and we are committed to responding to the overwhelming goodwill from our community by producing safe and reliable products of the highest quality.

 

MV: What is Redbird’s approach/philosophy on producing cannabis products for the medical market?

 

BT: We promise to provide the purest, high-quality grade of cannabis products for our customers. Our experienced team produces and packages each product with care onsite to ensure freshness and quality. Every item we sell is thoroughly tested for any contaminant after being cultivated and processed in our clean, secure facility. Patients deserve cannabis products that are pure, potent and pleasing. We refuse to ship any product that fails to meet our high standards of excellence.

 

So Fresh and So Green puts extra emphasis on the genetics it grows for Oklahoma’s medical market. Photos courtesy Amanda Viereck.

So Fresh and So Green

Unlike most medical cannabis markets in the United States, Oklahoma’s wide-open licensing structure has given businesses of all sizes a chance in the highly competitive industry, from independent craft growers to large-scale commercial operators.

Amanda Viereck and her husband, Cody, moved from Denver to Oklahoma for their shot at owning and operating their own marijuana production facility. They started So Fresh and So Green, while holding down full-time jobs for other cannabis companies (Amanda at the cultivation company Snaxland OKC; Cody at the retailer Grow Generation).

“We couldn’t pass up on the chance to start our very own cultivation facility,” Amanda says. “We are taking a huge risk to be here, but we couldn’t be happier.”

 

Marijuana Venture: What are your thoughts on the Oklahoma market?

 

Amanda Viereck: The current Oklahoma market reminds us of Colorado back in 2008. Everything is exciting and new. It is refreshing to be surrounded by such keen interest and enthusiasm revolving around cannabis. Operational medical marijuana businesses in Oklahoma that are being managed by industry experts have a huge advantage in the marketplace at this time. However, the market is young. Trends are still emerging and have yet to be established.

We have heard from dispensary owners that some folks are wary as to make their purchases in different counties to avoid being labeled. Marijuana use is becoming more widely accepted across the country and consumers will surely begin to feel more confident as we progress.

 

MV: What do you see as the pros and cons of a program that takes a fairly free-market approach to licensing and patient registration?

 

AV: The biggest pros have been the opportunity for people like my husband and I to have a chance. Oklahoma opened its doors to small businesses. The free-market approach is allowing the people to influence supply and demand, and competition is motivating companies to bring their best quality products to the market.

Some downsides could be that people with deeper pockets will push out smaller businesses and potentially even ignore the wellbeing of consumers and employees to increase the bottom line.

 

MV: Do you think there’s a chance that licensing so many producers and dispensaries could backfire in Oklahoma, as the competitive landscape pushes operators to cut corners?

 

AV: Certainly, there is a chance. In fact, businesses were able to get away with quite a lot when State Question 788 first passed. However, as new legislation is put into effect, businesses will have to adapt. We believe that Oklahoma consumers are clearly passionate about cannabis and word-of-mouth will weed out anyone lacking ethical or moral standards.

 

MV: Have you seen much opposition to medical marijuana in Oklahoma, a state that went from full prohibition to a market with thousands of licensed businesses and hundreds of thousands of registered patients in just about a year?

 

AV: We have been pleasantly surprised by the open attitude of Oklahomans toward medical marijuana. In fact, I cannot think of a single time we have encountered a negative reaction at all. From our perspective, Oklahoma is embracing the cannabis community wholeheartedly.

The overall perspective of cannabis consumers is changing as people accept its medical benefits.

 

MV: What is So Fresh and So Green’s approach/philosophy on producing cannabis products for the medical market?

 

AV: As cannabis connoisseurs ourselves, we have somewhat of a unique take on cannabis cultivation. We believe in love over profit. What this means to us is that we do not grow herb simply for the purpose of yield and revenue. Instead, we spend a lot of our time at So Fresh and So Green pheno-hunting. We genuinely love what we do and we’re searching for the best of the best.

We have carefully selected our genetics based on exclusive characteristics and singular traits. We take pride in the product that we have on the market and we know that the patients who purchase it will taste the difference between cultivation for love versus cultivation for profit alone.

 

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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