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$40k in fees, land surveyors, and a lot of research: How Columbus sisters finally got their cannabis

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

COLUMBUS – Denisha and Amber Glenn saw a whole future inside an abandoned Tuesday Morning.

The shuttered retail store was the perfect home for the sisters’ business venture: Holistika. In their vision, Holistika would be one of Mississippi’s first medical marijuana dispensaries.

The sisters already had success as founders of their own small human resources company. With cannabis, they did their homework.

“We started the planning process back in 2020,” said Amber Glenn. “We were looking at properties, putting together a business plan. With us being Black women, we knew there’d be challenges … so we have – since day one – done everything correctly and by the books.”

They visited out-of-state expos, toured leading dispensaries, and studied the state’s Medical Cannabis Act, which outlined the burgeoning program. They met early with a city inspector, ensuring their shop’s architect plan accounted for every plumbing and electrical requirement.

They were two self-made business women, regular Mississippians, navigating an industry largely dominated by white men and deep-pocket partnerships. A 2017 survey from Marijuana Business Daily found that less than 20% of marijuana business owners are minorities.

“We’d want to meet with companies – white men – and they would talk to us on the phone, but when they saw us in person, they’d totally disappear,” Denisha Glenn said.

The snags kept coming.

When they couldn’t find a local land surveyor to take them as a client, they tracked down one willing to travel from two hours away. They were meticulous, desiring a bullet-proof application ready to upload the moment the state opened the online portal.

None of it was enough. A competitor down the street uploaded their application materials faster. And in the battle for dispensary licenses across Mississippi, speed took precedence.

The first wave of licenses went to some of the budding market’s biggest spenders – an attorney who teamed up with an industry insider from leading cannabis state Colorado; a man who owns a private plane charter company; people who have invested millions already on cultivation sites and to launch their own empires, applying for several dispensaries at once.

The Glenn sisters said they were only aware of one other Black woman in Mississippi working to get a dispensary license. There’s likely a small number overall, but the state’s public list of licensed dispensaries doesn’t specify an owner’s race.

Losing out on the license stung. But it was the months of application limbo and unanswered questions that really hurt, the sisters said. They expected a swift rejection so they could move on and apply for another location. Instead, they say, it took months for Holistika to get a formal rejection and its $40,000 in fees returned so they could try for a new location.

“No matter the position in life, the public will like you more if they have access to you,” said Denisha Glenn, reflecting on more than two months it took to get Holistika’s first application rejected so she and her sister could apply for another store. “But it just seems like it’s a lack of personnel and a lack of training.”

In a statement to Mississippi Today, the Mississippi Department of Revenue said it responds “timely to all inquiries, including those from the personal and legal representatives” – including Holistika – “usually within one business day.”

The Mississippi Department of Revenue has issued 139 dispensary licenses since it began accepting applications at the beginning of July. The department says it processes the applications in the order they were received.

“The application portal licensing software time stamped the receipt of each application out to the 100th millisecond,” MDOR spokespersonwoman Lexus Burns said in a statement.

Milliseconds counted when applications first flooded into MDOR’s portal. With Mississippi’s law dictating no dispensary could be within 1,500 feet of each other, staking territory was vital.

Using the first-come-first serve system is normal within the industry, said Jackson-based cannabis attorney Slates Veazey.

“I struggle to figure out a more fair way,” he said.

But the law also says applicants should be issued licenses within 30 days of receiving an application. The same, in theory, goes for those being rejected.

“That’s important information to have,” Veazey said. “If you are getting rejected you need to look for other properties. You know you can move on. And the law gives applicants a short time period to challenge a license determination.”

Denisha and Amber Glenn said they lost valuable time that could have meant the difference between nailing down another property before a dispensary competitor edged them out for a second time.

Tucked next to her existing bakery, Nicole Huff has a roughly 1,200-square-foot space she’s working to open as Wildflower dispensary. It’s about 1,300 feet down the street from where the Glenn sisters hoped to open inside the old Tuesday Morning space.

“July 5, 8 o’clock, I was here,” Huff said from the desk in her bakery’s office, “dragging and dropping everything into (the portal).”

Thirteen days later, Huff was told her application was approved. But first there was a formatting issue with her land survey; she had 24 hours to have it redone. She wound up among the first people in the state to be issued a dispensary license.

“I’m so proud of the State Department of Revenue,” Huff said. “They’re crossing every ‘t’ and dotting every ‘i.’”

She said she cashed out her 401(k) and sold her stocks to fund her dispensary business. While her contractor filed construction permits, Amber and Denisha Glenn scoured Columbus for an alternative location.

“We wanted a back-up for the back-up,” Denisha Glenn said.

They spent $8,500 on land surveys to determine that any hopeful locations were the right distances from churches, schools, daycares and Wildflower.

But landing on the right new spot still didn’t solve their problems. Their first application was still at a standstill.

Denisha Glenn said it was an October call to the media spokesperson at the state Department of Health – which handles the licenses for cultivation, doctors, and patients – that finally got her in touch with the right people, including Cannabis Program Director Kris Jones Adcock.

“Once we got connected to the right people who could make those decisions, they were very kind and very helpful,” she said.

If an applicant’s bid for a license is denied because another dispensary was approved for license in their zone in the period after they applied, they are able to get the $40,000 in application fees returned.

“The Mississippi State Department of Health understands the complexities and challenges of starting this type of program,” said spokesperson Liz Sharlot, who assisted the Glenn sisters. “We are gratified for all of the support and cooperation of the Department of Revenue. The Agency is happy to assist applicants of all types to ensure a smooth process for everyone.”

With their fees returned, on Oct. 14, the sisters applied for a new license. It also meant letting go of the Tuesday Morning spot. They ended their lease.

The new spot is closer to where they grew up in Columbus.

“I think our new location is a godsend,” Denisha Glenn said. “It puts us closer to our community.”

In late October, the sisters got the news: Their new location was approved.

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