In a high-tech, subterranean nursery hidden 24 feet beneath the ground of a small lot near the airport, hundreds of marijuana plants are growing under the glare of LED grow lights, aided by a complex water and nutrient delivery system.
Partners Mike Sullivan, Doug Leighton and Zach Harvey are entering their fourth year of navigating the state’s licensing and regulatory gauntlet for cannabis dispensaries, but are now on the verge of seeing their vision become a reality. If all goes according to plan, they will open the doors of ACK Natural to the public in June.
“There was a million ups and downs and setbacks, it’s an incredible process,” said Sullivan, sitting in the sleek retail space that customers will see first when they enter the dispensary at 17 Spearhead Drive, located among the industrial lots north of Nantucket Memorial Airport off Old South Road.
Two years ago, Sullivan and his partners secured one of the two cannabis dispensary licenses the Nantucket Select Board was willing to grant for the island after fending off a competing bid from Mass Medi-Spa, a non-profit backed by the cannabis conglomerate Acreage Holdings. “There’s a lot of big players in the industry – giant, multi-state operators that are involved in a lot of places – and to go up against them, it was challenging to get to this point,” Sullivan added. “We’ve had a great working relationship with the town but it took time for this stuff to play out.”
ACK Natural will have 25 year-round employees in various roles within the dispensary, and Sullivan emphasized that he and his partners have made it a priority to hire local island residents for those jobs. The dispensary’s head cultivator Jamie Briard, for example, is a fifth-generation Nantucketer.
“We wanted people who have roots here,” Sullivan said. “We’re really proud to be bringing local jobs to the island.”
Nantucket’s first cannabis dispensary, The Green Lady, opened nearly two years ago on Amelia Drive. With ACK Natural poised to open its doors in little more than a month, does the island have enough demand for cannabis to support two dispensaries on a year-round basis?
“We think we have crunched the numbers really well,” Sullivan said. “We used the numbers from the Nantucket Data Platform, the amount of people who come and go each year, and budget our projections monthly based on the number of people as well as statistics the state gives us on the number of people who actually consume cannabis. So we believe we have a solid business, but we’ll find out when we open the doors. It’s nerve-wracking a little bit to have this much invested and not really know the end market, but I think ultimately people who know they can get medical-grade quality cannabis that was grown and produced in an environment like this will give them a lot of confidence.”
Sullivan added that in the nearly five years since Massachusetts legalized recreational marijuana in 2016, much of the stigma around cannabis consumption has ebbed. Recreational marijuana is now legal in 17 states.
“The boogie man is out of the room,” he said. “From when we started this four years ago, there’s a big jump in the amount of people who either use cannabis or admit they use cannabis, because I think even admitting it is a little bit more publicly acceptable now. I think a lot less people are smoking and are consuming cannabis in other ways, whether it’s chocolates, lozenges, tinctures, creams, a lot of people are using it for medicine, and CBD has become widespread and THC on the medical side of things. People are finding relief with that and it’s helping with the acceptance.”
The 13,000 square-foot ACK Natural building is quite simply something to behold. The multi-million dollar facility packs all of the dispensary’s operations into three floors, with the grow rooms below grade, retail operations on the first floor, and the second floor designed for the laboratory and testing, along with hanging, curing, trimming, and packaging.
Security is tight throughout the building, with access cards to allow only the necessary staff into certain areas, and 75 cameras mounted strategically inside and out. “It’s more (secure) than a nuclear power plant,” Sullivan joked.
All of the cannabis is grown hydroponically with no soil. The plants are based in rock wool – which is a combination of basalt and limestone that creates a cotton-candy-like substance. The entire environment is controlled – everything from temperature and humidity to the nutrients and water delivered to each plant – to ensure quality and prevent contamination. The walls are made of PVC material rather than drywall to prevent any mold from forming. Sullivan said the grow team is even purchasing microbial bugs delivered to the island in cornmeal to protect the plants from rot “and other bad bags.”
ACK Natural will be producing 16 different strains of indica, sativa and hybrid cannabis, which will be sold on a recreational and medical basis. Sullivan said once the growing operation gets into a rhythm, he expects the dispensary will be able to harvest as much as 150 pounds of flower per month.
That volume will allow ACK Natural to offer a variety of products, including traditional flower and vape products to smoke, as well as a range of edibles including chocolates, gummies, lozenges, and tinctures, even a line of cannabis infused cocktails offered in cans.