A brief 1,193 days after the voters of Arkansas approved medical marijuana by a decisive majority, the first legal medical marijuana dispensary in Little Rock opened, just in time for Valentine’s Day. Who knows why it took so long for Little Rock to become legally cannabisized, even though we’re the state’s largest, most populous and potentially most profitable market? I don’t know, just like I don’t have a clear sense of why the newly opened Harvest House of Cannabis, at 900 S. Rodney Parham Road, was able to beat Herbology just up the street to the punch, even though Herbology announced and then missed a flashy planned grand opening all the way back in November and even ran a billboard announcement or two, as we recall. Mysteries abound in the Arkansas marijuana biz these days.
When Harvest House of Cannabis announced it was planning to open Feb. 14, I was dispatched by the Times to bring back a full report on what legal weed had wrought in the capital city. The nutshell of it is: Harvest House of Cannabis was a truly mixed bag for Yours Truly, though it takes a bit of explanation to say why.
The first thing you notice about Harvest House of Cannabis (other than the fact that even the most smoked-out among us might be able to lob a baseball and nearly hit the parking lot of the soon-to-open Herbology dispensary, just up the street at 7303 Kanis Road — a development that could lead to some delicious price wars in the future, fingers crossed) is the way it looks. Love ’em or hate ’em for their personalities and prices, the majority of the dispensaries in Arkansas, with few exceptions, are the result of repurposing something else, be it a former cinder block restaurant, a storefront or a quickie metal building. While it’s probably a lot more cost-effective to do it that way, the result is that most dispensaries just don’t look that great in my experience. Most of them make up for the lack of calls from Architectural Digest in various quirky ways that have their own charms, but from a design viewpoint, Arkansas dispensaries are about as visually exciting as your average cut-rate tobacco store or laundromat.
Harvest House of Cannabis, by contrast, is new construction and pains were clearly taken to make it look great: clean and modern, impossible to miss in chromium yellow and slate gray, with perfect landscaping, plenty of frosted glass and the name spelled out on the side of the building in crisp black Helvetica. The place just looks upscale, something like you’d expect a boutique weed dispensary in Malibu to look. As someone who loves great design, I must admit that I was a bit smitten.
It’s a feeling that follows you through the doors, where I was met by an aggressively chipper young woman with a clipboard. I filled out the basic details on myself while perched in one of the thoroughly modern black chairs in the waiting area.
Unlike a lot of dispensaries where the waiting area is literally walled off from the dispensary floor, Harvest House of Cannabis is all about glass on the inside. You can look right into the sales floor while you’re waiting to be ushered in. Again, that’s something where a lot of dispensaries in the state are just at the mercy of their floor plan, but I appreciated the effect at Harvest House of Cannabis. Physical transparency makes for a feeling of metaphorical transparency, I suppose, which I can almost hear some architectural consultant telling the owners of Harvest House of Cannabis while sweeping a hand over artful renditions full of sketched and faceless customers.
Harvest House of Cannabis has dispensaries in eight states and is moving into more, and once you’re inside the Little Rock outlet, you can feel that sense of franchise about it, with everything from the literature, to the forms, to the decor apparently the result of some focus group or committee, every object and surface designed to push the buttons in your head marked “safe,” “hygienic,” “professional,” “natural” and “happy.” This is not your apartment-dwelling weed dealer gone mostly legit, which is definitely the vibe at some dispensaries I’ve visited. This is the Chipotle of cannabis.
The yellow paint scheme and the polished concrete floors carried that feeling of careful, corporate and clean right into the dispensing area, full of modern tables and display cases that all gave off that same classy and curated vibe. On one wall were loads of tasteful schwag: water bottles, lanyards, rolling trays, T-shirts, all with the Harvest House of Cannabis logo in crisp, black font.
After awhile, my paperwork submitted and my dog-eared medical cannabis card with the curling lamination handed back, I was ushered into the dispensary proper, where I was met by my budtender, who identified himself as Zack, or more likely Zach. Zack or Zach, tattooed and hipster-bearded, was a font of enthusiasm and knowledge about the products on display, steering me in the direction of vape cartridges when I commiserated about my puny lungs, and into an OG Kush cart when I talked about how that strain in particular works for my head even when smoking flower doesn’t work with the rest of me. He even threw in a battery and charger with the vape cartridge, which saved me a few bucks and which can be reused. Throughout the entire transaction, Zach was great, one of the most knowledgeable budtenders I’ve met so far. No complaints there.
One drawback I saw was that Harvest House of Cannabis has its menus constantly cycling through on a pair of big flatscreens over the sales counter. While waiting for the price of the OG Kush cart to come up, Zach and I had to stand there, necks craned, waiting. It took a bit for the menu to roll through all the options, and I thought that for the sake of the visually or otherwise impaired, it would probably do well to pay a few bucks to print out a list of their wares and prices on actual dead tree paper. Make it yellow if you must.
The other drawback to Harvest House of Cannabis — something I’ve experienced at a few other dispensaries — is that it only sells prepackaged cannabis as of this writing. In the age of coronavirus and killer flu, there’s likely something plenty smart about not going the route some dispensaries do, keeping their cannabis in old-school Mason jars where anybody can stick their nose in for a big ol’ whiff of the kind-kind. That said, there is — for our money — something right about seeing and smelling the bud as it is weighed out in front of you, as opposed to being handed to you in a hermetically sealed jar or baggie. Maybe the latter fits with the vibe at Harvest House of Cannabis, but we always find it nice to actually see the goods (Note: A friend of ours who went into Harvest House at a different point in the weekend was told by her budtender that the dispensary planned on getting some tethered clear jars for the tables so customers can at least see the texture and perhaps catch a smell of a sample of the product they’re buying).
Overall, the feeling of Harvest House of Cannabis, while hitting all the right notes when it comes to a truly upscale cannabis-buying experience, felt a bit sterile to me. Maybe I’ll change my tune on repeat visits, especially if it cooks up a few offers I can’t refuse as other Central Arkansas dispensaries come online. But for now, I can’t quite be called a fan, my appreciation for its lovely decor aside. Call me old-timey and stuck in the black market past, call me crazy, but I just want a hint of danger when I’m buying cannabis, that feeling of doing something just a wee bit illicit. Buying marijuana from Harvest House of Cannabis feels as illicit as buying a bottle of shampoo from Target. And yes, that’s probably a great thing overall, a fact on which I will accept your hate mail with joy, because I also recognize that it is time for cannabis to come out of the shadows and be seen as medicine instead of an illegal drug to get a weekend thrill. And yes, in that way, Harvest House of Cannabis succeeds, being as clean, well lit and freshly swept as a Walgreens or CVS drug store.
Harvest House of Cannabis is probably the future, while your average mom-and-pop independent cannabis dispensary, if such a thing can be said to exist, is probably the past. You may absolutely love that clean, efficient feeling, their color coordination and carefully manicured fonts and tasteful furniture.
But it’s probably just not for me right now. And with a couple two-dozen conversations with real patients about what they want — the five biggest considerations of patients, in my experience, being cost, cost, selection, cost and cost, not necessarily in that order — I genuinely wonder how far great decor and an Apple-store feel will carry Harvest House of Cannabis in Little Rock with your average medical marijuana patient as well, especially if those prices don’t come down at least a smidge. Again, though: Your mileage can and will likely vary, and to each his or her own.