BRIAN CHILSON
NATIVE GREEN WELLNESS ON THE WAY: Native Green Wellness Center owners Walter Koon and his daughter Kattie Hansen hope to open their dispensary in early June.

The owners of Native Green Wellness, located about 19 miles south of Little Rock at 26225 U.S. Hwy. 167 in Hensley, expect to open their medical marijuana dispensary by the first of June.

Majority owners include Walter Koon, 67, and his daughter, Kattie Hansen, 35. Koon owns and operates All Seasons Roofing in Hensley. Hansen said All Seasons Roofing is Koon’s longest running business and added that her father has established multiple businesses in the Central Arkansas area.

Native Green dispensary, a 10,000-square-foot facility, will initially be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. It is licensed as a “grow” dispensary, so Koon and Hansen can grow up to 200 mature cannabis plants and have up to 50 in a vegetative state. Hansen said the dispensary will feature a lab in which proprietary strains will be grown to “offer extra variety for our patients.” Seeds for the in-house strains come from a California grower. Native Green will also use the CO2 extraction process to create cannabis concentrate, which can then be infused into edibles and used in cartridges for vaping.

Hansen said the dispensary is also “in talks” with a researcher of cannabinoid pharmacology who wants to use Native Green’s lab to develop strains tailored to the state’s 18 qualifying conditions for medical marijuana cardholders. In addition to proprietary strains, products provided by the dispensary will depend on what’s made available by the state’s four cultivators, but Hansen said the dispensary plans to carry “a large range of everything.”

“We want to be a place where [patients] know if they’re looking for something, they can find it at Native Green,” Hansen said. Hansen said her father has a “wealth of business knowledge” thanks to his several commercial enterprises in Central Arkansas, but that the medical marijuana industry involves a “huge learning curve.” She said she and her father were initially interested in opening a dispensary as an “investment opportunity,” but after researching medical cannabis were convinced of its benefits for people. Their perception of the drug “completely changed.”

“There’s such a misconception around marijuana and the culture, and there’s this stigma,” Hansen said. “If you educate yourself [and] you put your innate biases aside — that’s when we decided this was really something we wanted to do. When we were doing all our research, we were like, ‘Wow, this is really underfunded and fascinating.’ ”

Hansen and Koon said they have family and friends who’ve struggled with alcohol and opioid addiction.

“I don’t know how other people are going to run [their dispensaries], but I know that we went in this to really help people,” Hansen said. “We’ve had alcoholic people in the family. We all know people who’ve abused opiates. I’ve had friends who have struggled horrendously with opiate addictions, through college and dealing with it afterwards.”

“You can go to any grocery store out here and pack up on beer,” Koon added. “That is destroying more families than all wars put together, alcoholism. It destroyed our family. My father was an alcoholic, and I’ve seen first hand what it does to a family. It’s terrible. It’s so bad. Marijuana is just so lightweight compared to that.”

To combat the stigma surrounding medical marijuana, Koon and Hansen said Native Green Wellness Center will work to educate the community about cannabis and dispel myths about the drug.

“Once your perceptions change, it’s kind of like what Oprah says, ‘You know better, you do better,’ ” Hansen said. “Once we started thinking differently, you just realize how our society as a whole is so uneducated about this. It really has been surprising to me how people change their opinions when you really just try to approach them with educating themselves and [by] comparing it to other things that we already have in this industry, like alcohol and opiates.”

Hansen said she’s created patient journals to help customers who “really care and want to document what they took, when they took it, how it affected them [and] to really track these things.” Patients can then discuss their findings with the dispensary and with their doctors. Hansen added that Native Green Wellness will have pharmacists on call during all operational hours, and a doctor will be available for patients to consult about how medical cannabis will interact with medications they’re already taking.

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When Hansen and Koon became interested in applying for a dispensary license, Hansen said she researched successful dispensaries in different states to understand their business models.

“Then you realize there’s a whole world of consultants out there,” Hansen said. “There’s this whole world of consultants where everyone’s an expert, and their fees are astronomical.” Koon said the average cost for consulting is “around $250,000, just for the application.”

Hansen, who studied journalism at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and formerly hosted the morning show on KTHV, Channel 11, said the strength of her writing background helped her and Koon decide to write the entire dispensary application themselves. The pair reached out to Leslie Duncan, a Fayetteville pharmacist, and Botanica Gardens and Plantopia Home and Garden Center owner Chris Olsen, about ownership in Native Green Wellness. Duncan owns a 5 percent stake and Olsen owns a 2 percent stake in the dispensary.

“We just knew that if we were going to go about this, it was going to be done the right way,” Hansen said. “So many people have all these contracts with people out of state, and it’s come to light how everybody played the application process. We didn’t do any of that. We just stuck with people we knew; we stayed honest.”

“Well, that’s what we are,” Koon added. “We’re law-abiding, decent, honest people. And it’s a good investment. Someone was gonna do it; why not us? I know we’re going to run the thing right, and that’s where we’re coming from.”

BRIAN CHILSON
UNDER CONSTRUCTION: Walter Koon and Kattie Hansen hope to provide as wide a range of products as possible at Native Green Wellness Center.

After receiving the second highest dispensary score in Zone 6 (the West Central Arkansas dispensary zone; Green Springs Medical took the top scoring spot), Native Green Wellness began construction on its facility in early February. Koon said he’s had issues contracting work on the project because of people who disagree with the business’ purpose.

“I’ve had an air-conditioner man refuse to do it because his wife just didn’t think it was right,” Koon said. “See, that’s the ignorance. I had an engineer refuse to do work on it because his wife didn’t think it was right. That’s the problem out here. People just don’t know how this is going to be operated.”

But Hansen said many residents in the Hensley area, as well as in surrounding communities, have expressed interest in the dispensary. When Hansen met with the Sheridan Rotary Club to present information about Native Green Wellness, instead of the small crowd she expected, she said many community members — including the circuit court judge, two deputy prosecutors, two defense attorneys, Sheridan’s mayor and school superintendent, as well as two city council members and several local business owners — showed up to learn more.

“There’s a lot of interest in what’s going on,” Hansen said. “People want to know. Unless they’ve read the rules and restrictions and they’ve gone through the application process, there’s no way that they know how restricted we are, what our security protocols [are], [and] how intense they have to be. They don’t know about our tracking software that we have to use that [is] integrated with the state so [it sees] exactly when and where every product is, from when it’s a seed to when it goes into that patient’s hands. That was a lot of what people were asking at the end.”

Hansen said she plans to be at the dispensary every day and use her communications background to connect with patients. While Native Green has not yet begun hiring, Hansen said it plans to help educate its employees by bringing in people who have worked in the industry in other states.

Despite some contractors refusing to work on the project, Koon said feedback from the community on Native Green Wellness has been largely positive.

“Every time we post something on social media, I get at least 100 friend requests,” Koon said. “And so many people [say], ‘Oh, we’re so happy this is coming, this is going to be so good for the neighborhood.’ … It makes me feel good. It makes me feel real good because we’re getting feedback that’s positive. It’s amazing. I would never believe it.”