This Island Life

Aloha Green steeps itself in the cultures and traditions of Hawaii as it aims to be one of the state’s preeminent medical marijuana providers

Aloha Green steeps itself in the cultures and traditions of Hawaii as it aims to be one of the state’s preeminent medical marijuana providers

The cannabis has been grown. The dispensary has been blessed. The patients are eagerly lining up at the door. Aloha Green, one of Hawaii’s first licensed producer and dispensary operations, is ready for business.

Just as soon as the state clears one final hurdle.

The company has been growing cannabis for medical use at its indoor facility on the island of Oahu since getting licensed in February. In mid-June, Aloha Green hosted a traditional Hawaiian blessing ceremony at its new dispensary, welcoming the public in to see the space and learn about the products that will be available at the company’s flagship storefront.

Aloha Green even has multiple rooms filled with product that is almost ready for patients who are clamoring to get their hands on it.

“We get calls every day from patients,” Chief Operating Officer Tai Cheng says.

There’s only one problem: As of the blessing ceremony, no labs have been licensed by the state. With testing requirements being part of Hawaii’s medical marijuana law, no product can legally be sold yet.

But that’s not stopping the Aloha Green team from trying to make its mark or establish its brand. The company is giving islanders a look inside the new shop before the product gets there. The store is also working to educate potential patients on what CBD is and how it can alleviate certain ailments without a psychoactive component. All of it is designed to help position Aloha Green as a leader in the state’s marketplace from the get-go.

“We’re the one to beat,” Cheng says.

TEAM-BUILDING

The Aloha Green dispensary on the Island of Oahu.

By Brian Beckley

The executive group at Aloha Green features professionals who come from traditional industries and not necessarily the cannabis space. There are lawyers, business people and even a former head of Homeland Security Investigations for the Pacific region.

According to Helen Cho, the company’s director of integrated strategy, the multiple legal experts function as an in-house counsel to ensure the company stays in compliance with the ever-changing state and federal regulations that guide the industry.

On top of that, they share one other trait that is highly unusual in the marijuana industry: None of them consume the product.

“We believe in the concept and what it can do for the community,” Cho says. “And we understand this is a serious business.”

The Aloha Green team includes:

CEO James H. Q. Lee, CPA, J.D.

Lee is a lifelong resident of Honolulu and is a graduate of the Shidler College of Business at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the UH Manoa William S. Richardson School of Law. He is a certified public accountant and practicing attorney.

COO Tai Cheng, MBA, LL.M.

Cheng is a graduate of the Mount Allison University, Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary School of Law and Peking University School of International Law. He is a practicing attorney with experience in regulated industries and cross-border transactions.

Executive Director William Cao, J.D., MBA

A graduate of the University of Calgary School of Law and the Haskayne School of Business, Cao is a practicing attorney with experience in mergers and acquisitions, corporate finance and regulated industries. He is a former investment banker with UBS Warburg.

Director of Cultivation Chris Mayerson

Mayerson has 10 years of experience in Canada’s legal cannabis industry and is also co-founder and chief cultivator of Aurora Cannabis Inc. of Alberta, where he oversees multiple grow facilities.

Director of Security Wayne K. Willis

Born and raised in Hawaii, Willis graduated from the University of Hawaii and has 30-plus years in law enforcement, investigations, supervision and management. He is a former special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations’ Honolulu field office.

Head of Dispensary Michael Lee

A graduate of the Shidler College of Business at the University of Hawaii at Monoa, Lee was born and raised in the islands and has 20 years of experience in hospitality, food and regulated industries.

Manager Rob. J. Acoba

Acoba has 30-plus years of experience in sales and marketing in the food and beverage industry and has opened more than 10 restaurants in Hawaii. He was born and raised on the island of Molokai.

Director of Integrated Strategy Helen Cho

Cho has a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s degree in integrated marketing communications from Northwestern University. She has 15 years of international business, branding and consulting experience and hails from the startup technology industry.

Following the blessing, residents were allowed in to see the new facility. Even without product, doors are open four days per week and the shop gets about 50 visitors each day.

MILES FROM THE MAINLAND

Hawaii’s location in the South Pacific, about 2,500 miles from the coast of the U.S. mainland, creates additional challenges for Aloha Green. The Marine Merchant Act of 1920, known as the Jones Act, makes it illegal for any foreign ships to dock in Hawaii without first visiting a mainland port, meaning cargo ships from Asia must pass Hawaii, unload on the West Coast and then ship their products back to the islands. That can lead to exorbitant prices on items other producers might take for granted.

For example, according to Cheng, it may cost $1,800 to ship something from Shanghai to California, but to go from the same host port to Oahu can run upwards of $7,000.

“Even Amazon Prime doesn’t deliver,” he says. “It makes things kind of difficult.”

But the isolation of living on an island in the middle of the Pacific has also led Aloha Green executives to an eco-conscious and people-centric view of how to run their business. It’s called “ohana,” a Hawaiian concept meaning “family” in the extended sense that everyone and everything on the island are all connected.

“It’s because we grew up on the island here,” Cheng says. “Anything we do to the environment is going to affect our neighbor down the street.”

The Aloha Green dispensary recently celebrated its opening with a traditional lion dance and Hawaiian blessing, though due to a lack of licensed labs needed to certify the product, sales have not yet begun.

The result is that Aloha Green utilizes as much from the islands as it can, such as making its own compost and fertilizers from local ingredients. The company is also dedicated to giving 5% of its profits to local Oahu charities and an additional 5% to support cannabis-focused medical research by Hawaiian agencies. It’s part of a commitment to make sure profits stay in Hawaii.

For now, the team grows indoors, using what Cheng calls an “organically-inspired” soil-based method. Aloha Green used an indoor operation to get up and running, but future plans include a move to a more sustainable greenhouse structure.

“The greenhouse is a step in the right direction,” Cheng says, though he adds that there are no plans to shut down the indoor facility even after construction of the greenhouse.

In total, plans are to utilize 2,000 square feet indoors and an additional 10,000 square feet in a greenhouse, plus about 18,000 square feet of manufacturing space. The company currently has access to the genetics of around 40 strains, though it only plans to make about eight available at any given time, and has 3,000 plants in its cultivation facility. When completed, Cheng expects the greenhouse to be home to 10,000 plants, including, he hopes, a few exclusive strains bred to grow specifically in Hawaii.

The Aloha Green team is working to create unique strains of marijuana that are new to Hawaii, but will grow well in the island environment.

READY TO OPEN

While they waited for labs to open so product can be tested and sold, the team at Aloha Green made sure everything was up to snuff at their new dispensary and worked to educate the public about the products that will be available.

Cheng says it is important to make sure that even if they cannot sell product, the doors are open four days a week and someone is available to talk to the more than 50 people each day who come in for information.

The company also hopes to dispel myths and rumors about the business, so residents and potential patients do not associate the store with traditional head shops and other tie dye-draped, pot-themed businesses.

Inside the Aloha Green storefront, patients find an open, clean layout with countertops and a waiting area. The store is well-lit, decorated in neutral tones and features televisions that display information about the product. The company is also reaching out to doctors on the island to include the medical community in its operations and plans.

“Right now we’re really about the medical side,” Cheng says.

Aloha Green currently grows its product in an “organicallyinspired” indoor environment but will be moving to a more sustainable model that uses a greenhouse to complement the indoor space.

MAUI WOWIE AND BEYOND

The use of pakalolo, the native word for cannabis, has deep roots throughout the 50th state. Everyone has heard of the island chain’s namesake landrace strain, Maui Wowie, and the natives have been using the plant as medicine since ancient times.

“Culturally, cannabis has a very deep history in Hawaii,” says Helen Cho, Aloha Green’s director of integrated strategy. “People know it as something that is part of their grandmother’s garden.”

Cheng says stories about neighbors growing in their yards and sharing with family and friends are prevalent in the island state’s culture, partially due to the climate and ease with which cannabis grows up and down the chain of volcanic islands.

“It grows very readily here,” he says.

Cheng says the traditional use of cannabis among the native populations led to Hawaii being one of the early adopters of medical marijuana legalization back in 2000. Illegal marijuana grows can be found all over the island chain, particularly among the smaller islands. According to Cho, the culture of acceptance helped create a significant black market that many on the island treat as a “badge of honor.”

Because of the prevalence of Maui Wowie and other native-grown cannabis on the islands, Aloha Green is focused on bringing new strains to medical marijuana patients in Hawaii.

Because of that, Cheng says Aloha Green is not growing some of the more traditional and readily-available strains found in Hawaii, so patients who may already have access to a friend’s garden still have a reason to check out the new dispensary.

However, that is only one of two competing breeds of culture on the islands. The other reaches back to the missionaries who made their way to Hawaii from the mainland. That culture, according to Cheng and Cho, tends to oppose cannabis and it’s part of the reason for the slow pace of regulations and licenses being meted out.

“It lives in a strange place,” Cho says of marijuana in modern Hawaiian culture.

If Hawaii ever legalizes recreational adult use, Cheng says Aloha Green will move in that direction, but for now its focus is squarely on helping not only its members, but the community as a whole.

It’s that sense of ohana that permeates everything Aloha Green does and what the team wants to be known for. It’s why they make sure to have traditional blessings for their facilities, complete with a Lion Dance and celebration, to show, as Cho puts it, that they are just “part of everyday Hawaiian life.”

“We’re just trying to be as authentic as possible,” Cheng says.

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