Nick and Tiffany Duty kept an eye on the rising popularity of medical cannabis in Colorado and California, rolling toward Oklahoma like a funnel of smoke. The couple saw it as an opportunity to start something new.
“We saw things kind of blowing up here with new trends,” Nick said.
As of January 2020, the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority approved 235,786 individual patient licenses, according to a tweet from the organization. This means that almost 6 percent of the state's population are medical cannabis patients. The tweet also stated the organization has already approved 2,242 dispensary licenses.
In August 2019, when licensed marijuana users made up 4.1 percent of the state's population, Oklahoma was the fastest growing market for medical marijuana in the average number of daily patient increases, according to Marijuana Business Daily's website.
Low application requirements and the absence of a list of qualifying conditions bolster the number of medical cannabis patients in Oklahoma, according to the report.
The Dutys, both 37, moved to Norman from Texas about eight years ago. They also run a racing strip near Noble, but they wanted to branch out, Nick said.
That’s how Pharmhouse Cannabis Co. originated.
Thunder Valley Raceway Park, which Nick's family has owned for around 50 years, operates March through November and attracts several thousand visitors a year, Nick said. He met Tiffany there, too.
Now, they are running the dispensary and the race track together.
An inviting experience
Nick and Tiffany said they aimed to make their Pharmhouse stand out from gas stations and questionable, dark-corner types of dispensaries.
“Well, you might have to go pick up my stuff, too,” Tiffany said when Nick got his medical marijuana card in February 2019. “I don’t want to go to those places.”
Both Nick and Tiffany received their medical cards for anxiety and sleep disorder treatment.
For Nick, it was a good enough catalyst.
“We thought to put something together for people to feel more comfortable,” he said, where people could come, look around, ask questions and not feel like they’re involved in an illegal, back-alley business.
Nick said he and Tiffany try to reach out and be part of the community through the two businesses they are involved in. They began planning the Pharmhouse in June 2019 and felt ready for tough competition.
Now, the dispensary is spacious and well lit. Its interior is largely furnished with wooden panels, which creates a homestyle vibe about the place.
“Personally, I don’t want to feel like I am going into a drug den,” Tiffany said. “There’s got to be people out there who feel that way.”
When a 70-year-old lady came by the dispensary, Nick recalled, she said her son was trying to talk her into trying concentrates — marijuana products that look like wax. Concentrates are typically highly potent since they contain a large percentage of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, a psychoactive chemical found in the resin secreted by glands of the marijuana plant.
“She was here looking at all these dab kits that I’m not even sure how to work with,” Nick said with a smile. “Whether you buy it or not, you should be able to come around, get some experience ... and learn how to make better decisions.”
The Dutys said some people don’t know they can visit a dispensary without a medical card. In fact, Pharmhouse offers a variety of cannabis-related products that customers 18 and older can purchase if the items don't contain THC.
Tiffany said she also wanted their customers to feel like they are at an actual business, where the visitors aren’t ashamed of shopping and where there is no stigma attached. Both Nick and Tiffany said their goal with Pharmhouse is to try to break free from the stereotypes about cannabis.
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” Nick said. “It’s all being done above board to help people.”
On June 26, 2018, 57 percent of Oklahoma voters approved the legalization of marijuana for medical use on a doctor’s recommendation, according to the Tulsa World. The state started accepting patient applications just a month later.
There are numerous restrictions in place as well. For instance, vendors can be held liable for advertising their product as a cure for customers’ high blood pressure.
Marijuana marketing and advertising must not contain misleading statements or illustrations that promote irresponsible use or effectiveness of cannabis in treating specific medical conditions, according to Sooner Marketing Solutions, a Tulsa-based marketing company that advertises dispensaries.
“We can only give suggestions and (share) personal experience,” Tiffany said.
At Pharmhouse, the Dutys try to make sure there are always staff members at the counter who have tried most of the dispensary’s products. They can explain how they felt about it, what it did for them or how it tasted, since those are most of Pharmhouse customers’ questions, Tiffany said.
There are eight employees at Pharmhouse in addition to the Dutys. Nick said some of them had cannabis-related legal issues 20 years ago, but they now work at a place where they get paid to sell it.
“I think it’s important that (such services are) offered in a place your grandma would feel comfortable coming in and buying something,” Nick said. “If grandma approves, then everybody approves.”
Location with a history
Because of the stigma, cannabis startups have a difficult time finding property owners willing to lease to a dispensary, Nick said.
He and Tiffany spent two months looking at locations, and they had almost given up. Most of the available places were either out of the way or too expensive.
“They think you are just a punk going to ruin their store and the area,” Nick said.
Then they found a building at Lindsey Street and College Avenue, just a day after it was listed.
“It was kind of perfect timing,” Nick said. “We couldn’t really ask for a ... better spot.”
The house was built in the 1930s as a butcher shop, and one of the initial owners' granddaughters still lives next door.
Nick and Tiffany still have an industrial refrigerator, originally used for hanging and freezing beef. They are currently figuring out how to make use of this focal piece of decor.
Seasoned Norman residents may remember the building as JJ’s Pizza Stop, which kept its doors open for over 26 years, according to a previous report by The Daily.
In 2017, the building was leased to become Barn Burger and Grill. Two years later, there’s cannabis instead of burgers.
With their background in drag racing, where safety concerns are raised on a regular basis, Nick and Tiffany are no strangers to overcoming obstacles when it comes to making their business known and loved by a community.
The dispensary’s opening on Nov. 11, 2019, was hammered by 33-degree weather and rain, but about a dozen people showed up anyway, the Dutys said.
“It’s definitely a slower start than anticipated,” Nick said.
He also said it could take up to six months before they will be able to figure out the Pharmhouse’s profitability.
“We’ve got lots of ideas,” Nick said, citing game days as a good opportunity for him, Tiffany and their employees to “go outside, welcome people” and advertise their dispensary.
But it is not the weather that makes things complicated for the Dutys.
“It’s hard to figure out where you are at, just because of the lack of advertising,” Nick said. “We came in knowing that it’s going to be a long road, and we’re here for a long haul.”
The Dutys said it's extremely difficult to advertise a dispensary since few places will take their ad money.
“No Google Ads, no YouTube, no social media — it’s very limited,” Nick and Tiffany said.
“You just have to build up an experience,” Nick said. “You can’t just say, ‘We have flower on sale for $10’ because they will close your account.”
These companies will find a place for the owners to run their ads, but it is more expensive and less effective, Nick said.
“And so we throw munchies to people, Twinkies and what-not with (Pharmhouse) brand stickers on them,” he said.
Despite the issues with advertising, the dispensary has already built its clientele with local fraternities and sororities. Repeat customers, referrals and word of mouth are the Dutys' main public relations strategies. Even some of their employees are college students, alumni and current or former fraternity pledges.
Nick said he likes Norman and OU because of that sense of community.
“I just think it’s neat to be a part of this,” Nick said. “It’s cool to be involved with something so bustling of activity, so many people hanging out and having a good time.”
He also said at Pharmhouse they often meet people trying to work their way through a difficult time in their lives.
“The college kids are going to be here,” Nick said. “Now, we want to reach out to people who are not going to see us every day.”
Older Norman residents, Nick said, are more likely than college students to have medical conditions that cannabis can help with, but they are also the ones who are more likely to feel uncomfortable coming in.
Medical marijuana is used to treat various conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. But it’s not yet proven to help with many of these conditions, partially due to the lack of research, according to WebMD.
Another major obstacle the Dutys face at Pharmhouse is its cash-based operation.
“Banks (with a federal license) that handle marijuana money can be charged with money laundering,” according to a report from The Economist. Cannabis businesses are generally stuck working with cash.
“Anything that’s regulated by the federal government, we can’t have it,” Nick said. “State-licensed banks will let you open an account, but it’s very expensive — $15,000 to $20,000 per year in bank fees.”
Nick said the federal policy makes his business less safe and his insurance more expensive.
“Everybody knows it, and that’s a problem,” Nick said.
The fourth day after opening, Pharmhouse experienced an attempted break-in, according to the Dutys. The intruders tried to kick through the back wall at 2 a.m. but ran off when the alarm sounded.
“It seemed very routine to (the police),” Nick said.
Norman Police Department officer Ashlie Livingston said she’s not surprised this kind of crime is common.
Since cannabis used to be illegal state-wide, Livingston said, and there are still people who can only access it illegally, these individuals are more likely to break into storages with large quantities of cannabis.
“I think it’s smart that cannabis companies lock up their drugs,” she said. “They better have safes.”
Livingston said she worked a burglary at Fire Leaf Dispensary just south of Highway 9 near Chautauqua Avenue.
“The guy got away with a grinder because they locked all of their product up,” Livingston said.
These two instances of cannabis-related thefts were not the only ones in Norman, according to Oklahoma News 4.
“It’s definitely not as simple as I imagined it when we first got into it,” Nick said. “It’s not as simple as buying marijuana and selling it at a higher price — when you actually get into it and do it, it’s definitely a wake-up call.”
Given the medical cannabis fervor in Oklahoma, Nick remains optimistic about Pharmhouse's future. He said he thinks Oklahomans will keep getting licensed until the rate settles at 7 to 8 percent of the state population, and that he believes that number will remain fairly stable until the question is tackled on the federal level.
“I don’t see in any way, shape or form that it does not become nationally accepted and probably recreational in most states,” Nick said.
But in the meantime, the Dutys said they plan to continue reaching out to Norman residents to gain the locals’ trust and attention.
“We want to be a part of the community,” Nick said. “Not just, ‘Oh, they opened another dispensary down the street.’”