BUDDING INDUSTRY: Vicksburg’s first medical cannabis cultivation facility prepares for distribution

Published 12:48 pm Thursday, January 12, 2023

Vicksburg’s economy is saying yes to drugs.

Just north of downtown Vicksburg lies a new industry in a retrofitted warehouse: Big River Cannabis company.

Owned by California transplant Phen Schlett and Jackson native Reed Nicholas, the large-scale cannabis cultivation facility is in its infancy while the company awaits the go-ahead from the state of Mississippi regarding the state’s certification and lab testing processes to legally sell medical cannabis.

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Schlett said he hopes they’ll be in the distribution business by early spring of this year, and he and Nicholas are thankful for the opportunity to rehabilitate an existing structure in the area.

“We’ve been out there building since July (2022), so we’re hoping to be opening up and running sometime in March,” Schlett said. “A lot of the companies that started in Mississippi to go down this path to provide these medicines for the patients that need it, they’ve had to start from scratch. We’re very big into reuse and recycling and taking something and refurbishing instead of demolishing. We’re into revitalizing.”

Schlett said he is not a cannabis user, but has seen firsthand the impact of medical cannabis on a loved one. After being involved in the industry for more than 10 years in California, Schlett and Nicholas, who has a background in power generation, saw nothing but opportunity in a move to Mississippi’s fledgling medical cannabis industry.

Schlett also said his experience in a state where the industry is established has helped people in Mississippi understand what to expect when it comes to cannabis cultivation, distribution and dispensing.

“This is not a facility that’s open to the public. It’s a very secure facility with cameras and armed guards,” he said. “Right now, the state is not quite ready to sell product yet. We’re a little bit out from that, probably a month or two. We’re in the fertigation process right now, so we’re keeping plants alive and growing in temporary containers while we build the facility out.

“As we complete that process, there will be dispensaries all throughout the state of Mississippi,” he added. “So we’ll be able to sell our products to all of those dispensaries throughout the state to provide our products for the patients.”

There are no dispensaries open in Mississippi because the product testing is not ready at the state level, so no medical cannabis products have been certified.

Breaking the Grass Ceiling

Once the state is able to test and certify its medical cannabis products, dispensaries will begin to open and products will be sold. Schlett described the dispensary model as “like going to CVS, but more secure.”

Vicksburg has five dispensaries that have registered with the Mississippi Department of Revenue: Leafmed 2 LLC, located at 2080 South Frontage Road; Mississippi Provisions LLC, located at 3312 Pemberton Square Blvd.; The Green Standard LLC, located at 1601 North Frontage Road; Green Wellness, located at 2314 Iowa Ave.; and Big River’s dispensary arm, located at 3046 Indiana Ave.

“A lot of people think you’re going to walk into a dispensary and there will be a cloud of smoke a foot thick and a bunch of guys with dreadlocks saying ‘Come on mon and get high,’ but it’s nothing like that at all,” Schlett said. “There’s only going to be two to three patients in a dispensary at a time; the rest are in the waiting room. You’ll be called back and you’ll purchase your product in non-descript packaging.

“You get your product and get politely shooed out the door and sent on your way home,” he added. “There’s no consuming of the product in the parking lot.”

Aside from providing medical cannabis products to those with prescriptions for it, the dispensaries and Big River’s cultivation facility will bring something else to the community — revenue.

In terms of initial investment alone, in order to open a dispensary in Mississippi, business owners must be able to pay about $65,000 to the state up-front: a $40,000 first-year license fee paid to the state Department of Revenue that includes a $15,000 non-refundable application fee, which means an applicant will not get that money back if they don’t get a license. The subsequent license fee is $25,000 per year.

The state will levy a 12 percent tax on medical marijuana sales — the 7 percent state sales tax and a 5 percent excise tax. The city in which the dispensary is located will get 18.5 percent of the sales tax collected by the state. The 5 percent excise tax revenue goes to the state.

Although critics of medical cannabis at the local level have expressed skepticism as to whether the city can support five dispensaries, Schlett believes there’s more than enough business to pass around.

“There’s enough business around to sell. Those dispensaries are not just going to cater to people who live in Vicksburg. They’re going to cater to people who live around and work in Vicksburg,” he said. “Anyone within the state or surrounding states is going to be able to purchase once they obtain their cannabis card from the state. They’re issuing those to people from out of state, also.”

He theorized that the stimulus it will provide to the local economy in terms of businesses locating near the dispensaries and those patronizing them far outweighs the perceived negative aspects of medical cannabis.

Know Your CBDs

To begin, Big River Cannabis will distribute “flower to flame” products — buds that will be sold in an eighth jar or bag that patients will be able to take home, grind and roll into joints or consume by other means.

“We’ll also have pre-rolled joints in tubes for sale, individually and as packages,” Schlett said. “We’ll have everything from cartridges, like a vape, edibles and tinctures. It’ll take a while to get our full product line up and running, but to start we’re going to have flower.

“One thing we’re also really proud to offer is called RSO, or Rick Simpson Oil,” he added. “It’s a whole-plant extract.”

Joining the Canna-biz

Currently, Big River Cannabis has 10 employees, but they’re ready to expand — and soon.

They’re currently in the process of planning a job fair and question-and-answer session in downtown Vicksburg to be held at the end of January.

“We’re looking at doubling our staff within the next two to four weeks,” Schlett said. “What we’d like to do is match people to positions. We have a lot of positions that we’re going to fill as we grow, from kitchen to cultivation to working in a lab. Construction, all different positions. We’re looking for people who are looking to work hard, to learn a new trade and want to change their lives.”

At full operating speed, he estimated they’ll have 50 employees, and stated the company has a commitment to sourcing all of those employees at the local level.

A Joint Effort

The economic impact of medical cannabis is something local officials say they’re looking forward to as well.

Mayor George Flaggs Jr. said he welcomes the addition of Big River Cannabis to the city’s business community and believes the industry will not only help patients in need, but contribute to a decrease in marijuana-related crimes.

“We’re excited about them coming to the area because we believe it’s a win, win, win. It’s a win for our city, it’s a win for the patients that need it and it’s a win for our health care providers,” Flaggs said. “Those are the kinds of businesses we want to come in, that put Vicksburg and Warren County first and our employment, and at the same time want to invest in our community.”

Warren County Board of Supervisors President Kelle Barfield said she welcomes enterprising business owners who choose to locate there.

“People have different positions on medical cannabis. I’m always pleased when any business leaders see Warren County as a place to do business and start a successful business,” she said. “I hope they’ll find, like other business owners in Warren County, that the economic climate is favorable to them and the future enterprises they pursue.”

One key aspect Schlett said drew he and Nicholas to the Warren County area was the ease of access to multiple distribution methods: the Mississippi River, rail access and its proximity to Interstate 20. Additionally, Vicksburg’s reputation as a hub for Southern hospitality didn’t hurt.

“The gratitude and the platitudes that we’ve received from city leaders and business leaders in Vicksburg. I’ve never been more made to feel welcome anywhere, ever,” Schlett said. “As our company grows and the relationship with the city of Vicksburg grows, we plan to do a lot of hand-in-hand stuff in the community.”

Pablo Diaz, President and CEO of the Vicksburg-Warren Partnership, said he looks forward to the economic diversification Big River Cannabis will bring to the area.

“We have worked with BRCC and provided any guidance they needed to understand the ins and outs of the business climate in our community,” Diaz said. “They are investing millions of dollars in our community and will create good jobs in a clean and professional environment. This is a brand new market in our state and BRCC is well positioned to take advantage of it.”