Health for Life Celebrates A Decade in Arizona
Health for Life (H4L) has been a leader in Arizona’s cannabis industry since their founding a decade ago, making them one of the earliest dispensaries in the state to still be operational. In honor of that milestone, High Times recently spoke to Josh Gile, H4L’s Director of Retail Operations for Arizona, to learn how they are coping with changing regulations and a changing climate in one of the hottest states in America.
Deep Roots in the Grand Canyon State
Gile has been with H4L almost the entire time, since the MPX days, and has seen the business grow and expand across the state. What started with one location in Cave Creek, quickly became a second in Elsworth, both celebrating their ten year anniversaries this fall. H4L has since added locations in Crismon and McDowell, delivers to medical patients around the state, and is vertically integrated to grow and manufacture their own house brand products. In addition to selling their house brands at their own dispensaries, H4L provides “wholesale products to over 50% of the retailers throughout the state.”
While Gile now uses cannabis, he is the first to admit, “I didn’t come from a cannabis background.” He used to work for the sheriff’s department, until medical leave forced him to find other employment. He was introduced to cannabis and CBD products which he said, “helped me get off a lot of the medications I was on.” Thanks to his background in law enforcement, Gile handles the compliance for H4L in Arizona.
A Legacy of Legal Hurdles
Every state legalizes and regulates cannabis in different ways, and some states, like Arizona, have some very unique quirks in their regulations that have posed interesting challenges for H4L and other cannabis operators.
The first major hurdle for Arizona’s medical cannabis industry came just three years after legalization in 2013, when a cannabis patient named Rodney Jones was arrested and sent to jail for 3.5 years for possession of a cannabis concentrate. That kicked off a six year long legal battle over the fate of cannabis concentrates in Arizona, something that activists, the industry, and eventually the state supreme court all said had been entirely legal the whole time. “I remember those days before 2019 and people were scared,” said Gile, who noted they did not stop selling concentrates while the court battle played out. The biggest issue he noted was for their vendors, “we had vendors going almost two hours out of their way to avoid some counties up north, because if they were caught the law enforcement would go after them.”
Currently, a major project for the Arizona Dispensary Association, which H4L is a member of, is lobbying to regulate delta-8 products like THC products. “We had a push in Arizona to regulate delta-8 like delta-9 products,” said Gile, “there are a lot of delta-8 carts out here, they’re essentially black market.” Another situation playing out in Arizona and around the country is the naming of cannabis cultivars. In Arizona it specifically has to do with strain names that could appeal to children, such as Candyland or the Cookies, which were both deemed to appeal to children. “Just the Cookies is a problem, but Bubba Cookies is fine,” Gile noted, which is a relief as H4L is selling Bubba Cookies and would rather not have to rename it, like they did with their Dark Knight, which is now “Black Knight.”
The Importance of Employee Training
As someone who has written a book on budtender training, I had to ask Gile about the big question for anyone who wants to work for a dispensary, what kind of training do they need to have? Do they want people who have a certification like that from Ganjier or The Trichome Institute’s Interpening program? What about going to college for cannabis classes? And when it comes to their work background, what other professions do well at H4L’s dispensaries?
When it comes to employees taking cannabis training courses, “It’s not necessarily a preference.” Gile noted that while both the University of Arizona and Paradise Community College have cannabis classes, H4L doesn’t “seek those people out and we prefer some type of industry experience.” While industry experience is preferred, there is plenty of space for hires from industries like retail sales or food service. “We hire a lot of baristas, like 4 out of 20 employees at one dispensary are all former baristas,” said Gile. “That customer service, that hustle, that drive is what we are looking for,” Gile said, adding “We can teach anyone about the PoS systems, the laws, and product education” through regular vendor trainings and thorough training on their house brands.
The Power of House Brands
While H4L operates four dispensaries around Arizona, iAnthus, their parent company, has 29 dispensaries across 11 states, as well as other verticals like manufacturing and cultivation. That means every region they operate in can share their skills and expertise with the others, for example, Gile said, “Florida has a rosin line and we don’t so we regularly share best practices.” They’re working on adding rosin to their line up in Arizona, which right now includes disposables and live resin sold under their MPX brand and cured resin products sold by their Black Label brand. Gile was proud that iAnthus was so impressed by Arizona’s MPX brand, that they “picked it up for other states to bring Arizona’s best practices to other states.”
The power of house brands isn’t just the sharing of knowledge among different state operations, but also the ability to produce at a scale unlike most other cannabis businesses, which means lower prices for customers. According to Gile, the Black Label is “the best price you can get for your money, terp sugars and other top end concentrates testing over 80% THC will go for $10 a gram.” Even the higher quality live resins sold by MPX are just $40 a gram or $18 for a diamond roll, which Gile described as the “best flower [combined] with our diamonds to make an infused preroll” from growers like Alien Labs and True Med.
It isn’t just about value, it is also about quality, and H4L’s MPX brand has won multiple awards from High Times, including Best THC Cartridges of 2018 and Cannabis Cup Winner – Indica 2019. Thanks to that high quality and low price, their house brands make up a little over 30% of all sales.
Delivering Quality in Record Breaking Heat
Operating a cannabis business in different parts of the United States will have specific challenges depending on where you are, for example, earthquakes and wildfires in California or frigid temperatures in New England. In Arizona, H4L is dealing with record breaking heat, specifically almost two solid months of 110 degree weather, which poses challenges to all their operations.
That heat makes cultivation more difficult and costly, and means that dispensary sales may take a hit as customers choose to stay home and avoid driving in dangerously high temperatures. That heat also means H4L needs specially equipped vehicles if they ever want their products to reach customers without melting. “We have a distribution hub that will bring products to our stores and they use huge refrigerated vans so when we get our live rosin and other products they are all kept cold,” Gile said. Currently, state law only allows for delivery to medical cannabis patients, but that is all likely to change next year as Arizona finalizes their adult use delivery rules, and H4L is already figuring out the specifics of how they will keep delivering top quality to cannabis customers around Arizona.