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January 9, 2024

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Medical marijuana may not get you high like street corner weed, but it’s certainly creating a lot of buzz. So as the legal, over-the-counter pot business continues to grow, WayMaker Journal has turned to Sharon Ali for an insider’s guide to the budding industry.
One of the leaders in the flourishing new market, she is enthusiastic about both the lucrative business opportunity and the positive social impact. As regional general manager for Acreage Holdings, which has its own brand of medical marijuana (Prime) and its own chain of retail outlets (The Botanist), Ali oversees the company’s development in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
It’s a challenging new industry to be part of, one requiring the ability to navigate sometimes muddy cultural perceptions and sharp regulatory controls that draws on all her past experience in management, marketing and branding. But the potential is huge.
The legal cannabis industry was a $20 billion concern last year. That’s still less than a third of the illicit market, but those sanctioned sales are projected to grow to almost $100 billion over the next five years, says Ali. More than 30 states have legalized marijuana use for medical reasons so far, while 18 states have OK-ed recreational use.
“Time will tell, but it’s an incredibly large, growing industry,” Ali says, “growing by leaps and bounds, especially from a medical standpoint because there’s the growing consciousness and awareness that the therapeutic value is just absolutely indispensable.”
‘INCREDIBLE OPPORTUNITY’
Ali came to the wellness field after almost 20 years in the Chicago area with businesses including Quaker Foods and MillerCoors. The Dartmouth College grad who went on to get her MBA from Columbia Business School saw the medical marijuana startup as “an incredible opportunity to build on my career in health care.”
Acreage’s vision statement declares that the company deeply believes in “the transformational power that cannabis can have to heal and change the world and aim to help it achieve its full potential in helping people to lead better lives.”
She may have been new to the industry, but Ali had to move quickly when she arrived. When Acreage was awarded one of Pennsylvania’s limited number of grower-processor licenses, she and a small team of four others broke ground on a 30,000-square-foot facility in Sinking Spring in September 2017. It was completed by the end of the year, with the first Prime harvest coming in the summer. One sign of the subsequent growth: the team now numbers around 80.
The cultivation process is exacting: “You’ve got to be able to manipulate at different stages and focus on the temperature, the lighting, the humidity at each stage from germination to cloning to vegetative to flowering, to your harvest,” Ali explains. That process is handled by what she calls “an exceptionally highperforming team.”
Despite the emphasis on production, she doesn’t think of herself primarily as a farmer, however. “I consider myself someone who has a passion, frankly, in terms of health and wellness, and I see this as that next frontier in terms of health care.”
It may be new territory, but it is well policed. “I cannot stress enough it’s a highly, highly regulated business,” Ali says. “Clearly there are different regulations in terms of agriculture, but I would say in my opinion, especially in Pennsylvania, everything is regulated from start to finish.”
Operating standards are strict. The production facility has 24/7 video surveillance, with a full-time security team of around 10. New hires have to pass an FBI background check. Health department inspectors can turn up unannounced to check on things. Then there’s random lab testing of the product. “We’re making sure that everything’s being done based on the regs and also based on our standard operating procedures,” says Ali.
“We want to ensure that the product that we’re taking to market is the safest.”
‘COMPLEX PLANT’
Ali’s success in helping establish Acreage’s footprint over the past few years is not just evidenced by its share of the market. In 2019, she was honored with a Minority Business Leader Award by Philadelphia Business Journal, following her inclusion in the previous year’s Women of Distinction list. A former associate speaks of her “rare gift of understanding and managing the details, while maintaining keen focus on the strategic picture.”
Ali offers a quick science lesson on the differences between recreational and medicinal marijuana. “It’s a very, very complex plant,” she explains. It contains many chemical compounds, though most people are probably aware of only two of them—THC and CBD.
“THC is that which they call a psychoactive compound,” she says. “That’s the one that gives you the high that everyone talks about, as opposed to CBD, which is an anti-psychoactive compound and it’s more moderating, controlling, more stable… Typically, when you’re thinking about medical marijuana there’s a higher proportion of CBD versus THC.
“The other key difference in terms of medical marijuana is it always, at the state level, has to be regulated by a medical professional. It is based on any of a number of qualifying, serious medical conditions. It is more often than not heavily regulated, to ensure the highest possible efficacy and safety.”
With marijuana for recreational use, there’s a higher proportion of THC “to get that high,” she says. Additionally, there’s “less rigor” regarding its regulation.
Ali illustrates the care with which medical usage is overseen by recapping how Acreage won one of the first, limited licenses granted in Pennsylvania for both production and distribution. “The thing that really distinguishes Pennsylvania is they decided that they were going to add a clinical research element,” she adds. It “essentially says, no, we really want to understand and do much more in terms of researching to understand the medicinal impact of medical marijuana. So they actually set up then eight grower-processors who in turn then partnered with medical schools… So that’s one of the distinguishing features in terms of the Pennsylvania program.”
The state has a two-tier testing process. Independent labs that are state-certified pull random samples for testing, and a supplier that fails has to retest twice with the same lab. Ali sees it as just part of the cost of doing business: “We want to ensure that the product that we’re taking to market is the safest, most efficacious product.”
SHARON ALI: MY WAYMAKER
I would say my parents, especially my mother. She had an expression that my sisters and I, we embrace to this day: “Nothing beats a failure but a try.” My mother was a supreme optimist; she always wanted the best for her kids. She was valedictorian of her high school class and wanted to be a lawyer. Unfortunately, she didn’t realize that ambition, but she’s seen it realized with two of my sisters and two of my nieces, and two more coming at this point. So, my mother is just an absolute inspiration to me… in terms of all that she did to help me get to this place.
‘BEING NIMBLE’
Ali sees great opportunities in her region. With 600,000 registered patients and caregivers in the state, almost 5% of Pennsylvania’s population is in the market for medical marijuana. “As we look at how to manage our business, we’re looking at it through the lens of what’s been approved from a form standpoint, and as we look at our product mix, how do we ensure we’re bringing to market the forms that the patients want,” she says.
Production costs are an important metric, of course. Ali refers to “that oh-so-critical, delicate balance of being able to serve the needs, speaking of the patient population, but at the same time obviously having a profitable enterprise.” With that in mind, wholesale operations are “critically important. The management is in large part going to drive your ability to be financially profitable.”
What’s her advice for someone interested in pursuing the medical marijuana industry as a career? First, learn what you can, because “as they say, knowledge is power, right?” She suggests MJBizMagazine, which offers “a fairly in-depth view of what’s happening on a state-by-state basis.” Also, talk to people in the industry to learn “how did they get to where they are at… I have had a number of people reach out that way and I always try to help.”
Next, she says, decide what part of the industry you want to be involved in—on the production end or the distribution and sales side. As a patient care consultant in retail, “you’re engaging with patients and caregivers and providing them with the product knowledge.”
One thing you will need is a willingness to take a bit of a risk. “Really be prepared,” she advises. “This is an industry that, at this point, you have a number of fairly large multi-state operators, but you also have operators that are in startup mode, so really be prepared for facing the uncertainty and certainties of a highly regulated industry and being nimble and adaptive in terms of how you position yourself to learn, and more importantly, be in a position to move forward and progress.”
Those recommendations come from some of her own career experience. “There were a number of people who really helped me learn,” she says as she reflects on her career. “I was just out of business school and there were people who kind of took me under their wing— you know, first job and really trying to learn the ropes and how to navigate a corporate environment. A number of people helped me in that regard.”
She speaks highly too of the “exceptional team” she has around her now, and her senior director of production, who has a decade-plus of experience, with posts in other cannabis states. “Those are just some of the people who, professionally and personally, have made an indelible impression and helped me get to where I’m at, where I am.”
From an interview with Louis Carr
This article was originally published in the Winter 2021 issue of WayMaker Journal.