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It’s been a little over a week since adult-use cannabis sales began at Holistic Solutions in Waterford, New Jersey, and for founder and CEO Suzan Nickelson there’s little time to sit still. 

“The time commitment as a [cannabis] operator is all hands on deck.”

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Fortunately for Nickelson - the first black female dispensary owner in New Jersey- she has experience with cannabis that stretches back years and even generations before she opened her dispensary, in the hills and backcountry of western Jamaica. 

Suzan C Nickelson HEADSHOT # 3

Born in Jamaica, Nickelson traces her roots to runaway slaves from West Africa who fled to the hills after they arrived on the island. In the backcountry of Westmoreland Parish, Suzan’s mother was an herbalist. According to Nickelson, herbalists are “women in Jamaica who really use cannabis plants spiritually, economically, and medicinally.”

Nickelson’s mother practiced the oral traditions of herbalists, using plant-based medicines - including cannabis - to treat a wide variety of illnesses and help prolong and enrich her life. Her family’s legacy with cannabis left a strong impression on Suzan, who sees it as a plant of spirituality and reverence that has been unfairly stigmatized, leading to the Drug War, which for decades has disproportionately targeted minorities in the United States. 

After her mother passed away in 2013, she visited her brother in Colorado and was able to enjoy being in a legal recreational cannabis state. She also left inspired to replicate the same in New Jersey.  

Eight years later, Nickelson submitted her application to run a cannabis dispensary in the Garden State. Before submitting her application, the Rutgers University graduate founded Ital Daughters LLC, a cannabis and hemp consulting company that assists women, minorities, and veterans understand the compliance issues facing the legal marijuana industry. 

“We’re very New Jersey grown women who just felt that cannabis needed something different and needed representation of a woman’s voice, specifically a woman of color.” 

But it was by no means easy to get to opening day. 

Funding headaches and predatory landlords 

Nickelson discussed the problems women - specifically women of color - face when they are trying to raise seed money. She said that she dealt with all types of implicit bias and she had to do “really creative things” to get funding. These included turning her camera off during remote meetings with potential funders and having a white friend attend the meetings and perform pitches.

And then there’s the issue of rent. 

As Nickelson explained it, she encountered a number of “predatory landlords' ' whose eyes would light up when they heard that Suzan works in cannabis. 

“As soon as they find out it’s cannabis, the price for rent goes up like 5 times.”

She added that “you have a lot of applicants with not a lot of places to go because of the compressed market in regards to real estate. And in the areas where there is available real estate, it’s extremely predatory.”

How hard is it to set up a cannabis company in New Jersey?

The difficulties of running a cannabis business are well-known. Companies have to cope with price compression, stiff competition, compliance headaches, and all the issues that come with working in a business that is still federally illegal.

“It’s really difficult, it’s not an easy process. Getting to operations, with compliance, all the regulatory demands, and then being able to scale your company, it’s very difficult,” Nickelson said. She also advised that going into cannabis isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. 

Store Photos “I always stress to individuals to be very intentional about the reasons why they’re getting into cannabis. I’ve met people who have had great intentions but they're not hands-on with their projects and they’ve left it for other people who may not be representing their brand in the way that they should.”

Nickelson added that “if you’re looking to get into cannabis it’s not a party every day.”

She mentioned the multi-layered processes that go into creating a cannabis brand like attaining real estate and municipality approval, as well as wetlands conservation regulations that can stand in the way. 

“There are things that are not always within the applicant's or operator’s control that may very well delay, side track, or altogether shelve a project.”

Rootwurks and Holistic Solutions 

A Rootwurks client, Holistic Solutions opened for medical marijuana patients as an alternative treatment center in February. Nickelson said that her staff has used the Rootwurks Learning Experience Platform (LXP) for educational purposes, to help them understand the Standard Operating Procedures they use, and for onboarding and orientation.

Nickelson, who was named to the Women of Excellence 2023 list by South Jersey Mag, said that by using the system, her budtenders learn modules "that cover their day-to-day interactions with customers at the point of sale and the product. So it all comes together from a written concept, from a curriculum format to an implementation in which they physically have to do it.”

But beyond having the right know-how and tools like the LXP in place, when asked what is the most important thing about starting a cannabis brand, Nickelson didn’t hesitate. 

“It’s having a good team, having an understanding of your team and your expectations. Having the right professional services but more importantly, having a really solid team.”

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Ben Hartman, Content Manager

Ben Hartman is a cannabis writing and marketing professional with over 15 years of experience in journalism and digital content creation. Ben was formerly the senior writer and research and analysis lead for The Cannigma.

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