Gina Berman and Lilach Mazor Power wanted to offer an alternative to traditional medicine in an environment that didn’t treat patients like junkies — and they’re changing the face of medical marijuana in the process
Gina Berman and Lilach Mazor Power never set out to create a run-of-the-mill cannabis company.
Not only did they want to provide superior service to their patients, but they wanted to help shift the conversation toward acceptance, to establish a higher set of standards and to be positive leaders within the community.
The Giving Tree Wellness Centers in Phoenix and Mesa, Arizona, are not the typical medical marijuana facilities many visitors have come to expect. Instead, the Giving Tree’s lobbies resemble a traditional doctor’s office — a welcoming appearance that has fooled plenty of visitors.
“We had a woman come in who wanted to sell us billboard advertising space,” laughs Berman, the former emergency room physician who co-founded the Giving Tree and acts as its medical director. “We asked her, ‘Do you know what we do? This is a marijuana dispensary. We would love a billboard.’”
When the sales rep figured out where she was, however, the billboard was off the table. And this wasn’t the first such occurrence. Despite their best efforts, Berman and Power often find the ongoing stigma of marijuana creates some considerable obstacles.
“It’s not reasonable, and there’s no logic behind it,” says Power, the Giving Tree’s co-founder and managing director, who focuses on research and development for the business. “It’s the mentality that ‘I don’t know about it, and I don’t want to learn about it, but I’m against it.’”
In addition to snubs from billboard salespeople and the Better Business Bureau, Berman and Power have encountered a variety of other setbacks, including local voters who wanted to make it harder to open dispensaries in their neighborhoods and zoning laws that relegate their wellness centers to industrial areas. It would be easier to open a gun shop or a strip club, they say. Medical marijuana dispensaries are zoned the same as junkyards surrounded by barbed wire fences. Plus, dispensary sales are taxed, despite the cannabis being sold for medicinal purposes.
“They treat the patients like junkies,” Berman says of some of the city and state’s onerous regulations. “The marijuana is considered medicine, but not really.”
When Berman and Power initially discussed opening an alternative medicine clinic, cannabis wasn’t even part of the equation. Berman wanted to open a place where patients could receive a variety of services, from massage therapy to acupuncture. Having worked in the emergency room trenches for many years, she hoped to provide care outside the bounds of traditional medicine.
Unfortunately, the housing market crashed at about that same time and the ensuing recession made the alternative medicine clinic a financial impossibility. Berman and Power tabled the idea until Proposition 203, a ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana, was approved by Arizona voters in 2010.
Berman realized a nonprofit medical marijuana dispensary that also offered alternative therapy could be the perfect way to realize her dream venture. Power loved the idea, and the two entrepreneurs began a three-year journey to explore the industry they were about to join.
With just the two of them tackling the licensing and build-out, they adopted a “divide-and-conquer” strategy — both juggling the immense responsibilities of motherhood.
“Gina managed the zoning and permit processes; I made sure the construction happened on time,” Power says. “We did everything from hiring each person on the team to delivering furniture to the store.”
It was a hectic endeavor, complicated even further with Berman being pregnant and giving birth to her third child within days of co-founding the Giving Tree.
They finally opened their twin wellness centers two months apart in 2013.
A Different Approach
The Giving Tree adopted a simple mission statement: Put patients first.
As patient enrollment has ballooned from less than 4,000 patients in the first year of the program to nearly 100,000 now, Berman and Power have held firm to their objective and have begun to change the face of cannabis-focused patient care. This often means taking a completely different approach than other marijuana businesses.
“We treat our patients and employees right, and the loyalty has been significant,” Power says. “We’re not offering the $8 gram, but the quality, consistency and service is always there. Patients can buy in small doses, and we also have a return policy that’s essentially no questions asked — if it isn’t the right medicine for you, we will replace it.”
The Giving Tree’s highly trained staff is equipped to support anyone who walks through the door. Every patient meets with a consultant who will learn about the person’s medical condition and needs, make recommendations and help navigate the entire process. First-time patients have access to a free, private consultation where they can bring family and friends to learn how cannabis can be used to treat illnesses and alleviate symptoms.
Because the patient consultants have such an important job, Berman and Power put job applicants through a rigorous vetting process before welcoming them to the team. Prior to meeting with patients, the consultants go through an extensive educational process; they learn key details such as avoiding claims that cannabis can cure ailments, while understanding why marijuana might make sense to treat pain for some people.
The result has been a fiercely passionate staff that isn’t afraid to speak up if something on the menu doesn’t meet the Giving Tree’s high quality standards.
“We don’t hire people who want to use this as a first step into the cannabis industry,” Power says.
“We don’t do things like other people. It’s either for you or it’s not. And it’s not for everybody.”
Currently, the Giving Tree has 54 employees on staff from 22 states and multiple countries. They work as growers, researchers and patient consultants, but every person values patient care and cannabis quality above all. Even with such a close-knit staff, however, living up to the center’s mission sometimes means making hard choices.
“We’re willing to destroy a crop if it’s not up to standards,” Berman says. “We are catering to an ill population. It’s a part of our company’s culture to be prepared to do the right thing, even if that means leaving money on the table or spending more money to do it right. We have a responsibility to patients.”
The Giving Tree’s 55,000-square-foot cultivation facility in Phoenix features nine grow rooms that hold approximately 1,000 plants and supplies approximately 70% of the company’s inventory.
The Giving Tree buys the rest of its product wholesale from other Arizona growers, including all edibles and some concentrates. Hash, capsules, oils and other products are made in-house — an endeavor that stays true to the Giving Tree’s namesake by using every part of the plant. In 2017, the company will open its first greenhouse to expand its production capabilities with a smaller environmental footprint.
“Standards are very important in our industry, and we are essentially creating the processes as we go,” says Powers, who recently visited top researchers in her home country Israel to learn about the latest practices and innovations. Israel has long been considered the most advanced country in the world in terms of medical marijuana research.
Although cannabis can’t be certified organic, Berman says the growers follow an all-natural cultivation philosophy, and the company lab tests all its products even though it isn’t required by law. The Giving Tree also meticulously selects the best strains on the market, which often means forgoing high-yield strains and the latest trends.
“We want to have enough of a variety that we can serve anyone who walks through the door,” Power says. She adds that she’d be proud to serve her mother anything on the menu, a personal standard that helps guide the company’s work. “Our mission and vision are carried through everything we do.”
Fighting for Superior Patient Care
Ultimately, Berman and Power couldn’t convince the Department of Health to support their vision to provide a full range of alternative therapies with the help of an on-site naturopath, but the Giving Tree does offer free 90-minute yoga classes to both patients and non-patients every Saturday. It’s one small way to encourage patients to pursue other non-traditional treatments.
The Giving Tree also gives back to patients and the community in other ways. To date, the nonprofit has donated its employees’ time and more than $50,000 to charities and causes like Making Strides (network for breast cancer awareness events), Chrysalis (anti-abuse organization for victims of domestic abuse) and Take Steps for Crohn’s & Colitis (education, research and support organization). Power and Berman began their fundraising efforts even before they drew a salary for themselves.
“When we started this business, it was all about changing the industry, and becoming a safe and inviting place for patients,” she says. “We wanted people to say, ‘Arizona did it right. Look at this business. They have higher standards.’ It was bigger than a way to make money.”
Berman adds that philanthropy was part of the reason the clinic regularly sees patients of every age, race, gender, socioeconomic status and walk of life.
“Anyone can show up and feel comfortable that there’s not a secret language or password to get in,” she says. “We want to make everyone feel welcome.”
Some patients even feel comfortable enough to openly share their stories and struggles. In turn, these stories inspired Berman and Power to take on a pervasive new challenge: opioid addiction.
According to the Surgeon General’s website, 78 Americans die every day from opioid overdose, and 44% of Americans personally know someone who has been addicted to prescription painkillers. The Center for Disease Control calls opioid overdose an epidemic.
“People come in with tears in their eyes, saying it all started with actual pain and now they’re dependent,” Power says. “The more we learn about recovery centers, the more we learn that whatever they’re doing isn’t working.”
Medical marijuana has recently emerged as a possible alternative. In April 2016, Maine began listing opioid and heroin addiction to the list of conditions medical cannabis can be used to treat, and other states are catching on. For their part, Berman and Power are opening an addiction recovery center, Blue Door Therapeutic, in the first quarter of 2017.
“In the ER, I felt like I was part of the problem,” says Berman, explaining that patients often go from hospital to hospital looking for medication to prevent painful — and possibly lethal — withdrawals, a process that drains patients and medical professionals alike.
“With our recovery center, I feel like I can be part of the solution for some people,” Berman says.
Even though there hasn’t been a ton of research proving marijuana can effectively treat this addiction, anything appears to be better than maintaining the status quo. The co-founders are willing to try an option some might consider experimental.
“We need to be using every tool in our toolbox to address this problem,” Berman says.
Much like the Giving Tree, Blue Door Therapeutic is an opportunity for Berman and Power to change the way people think about medical treatment. Both women are incredibly proud of the work they’ve accomplished for their patients.
“We are so honored to be a part of this industry and this movement in medicine,” Berman says. “It’s so fulfilling to make a difference in people’s lives. It’s energizing, and it drives us to do what we do.
“And believe me,” Berman adds laughing, “we get knocked down a lot.”