Owner of San Juan County's first pot dispensary reflects on 10 years of challenges
Jason Little says road to success has not been easy
FARMINGTON — When he founded New Mexico Alternative Care nearly 10 years ago, Jason Little may have seemed like an unlikely candidate to start San Juan County's first medical marijuana dispensary.
After all, as a mortgage banker, he came from a traditional, buttoned-down, business background. He jumped headfirst into a new, unproven field that was not exactly a bastion of respectability and legitimacy, despite its newfound legal status in New Mexico.
But as his company prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary next month, Little insists he's never wavered in his belief in the industry or experienced any regrets about devoting his life to it.
"No, I think I was built for it," he said. "I think I was groomed for it."
There are two reasons for that, beginning with the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007 and the onset of the resulting Great Recession. Little said the raft of new regulations the banking industry faced as part of the post-2007 reform movement prepared him well for his move to the tightly regulated medical marijuana field, where there is seemingly no end to the paperwork and legal accountability.
The second reason is personal. When he was a high school student in 1982, Little's stepmother developed what she was told was a terminal case of leukemia. She began experimenting with cannabis products and experienced surprisingly good results.
"She's still alive today," Little said, explaining that while he never experimented with cannabis during his high school and college years — when he was active in athletics — it became a staple in his home, where he knew it simply as "Mom's medicine."
After Little witnessed the positive effects he said the plant had on his stepmother he became a strong believer in its medicinal properties and ability to help other people. So it wasn't much of a leap for him to decide in 2009 to leave the troubled mortgage business behind and apply for the first medical marijuana license in San Juan County, which he was granted in December 2010.
He opened the doors of his business, New Mexico Alternative Care in April 2011, and will celebrate his 10th anniversary next month, having survived a series of challenges. They include an initial market that featured no clients, the competition of recreational marijuana in Colorado and now the addition of other medical dispensaries in the county as the market here has matured.
"I went into it with a total medical mindset," he said, insisting that he didn't see the fledgling medical marijuana field in New Mexico from a gold rush perspective. Oh, there was money to be made in it — of that, Little was sure, and he doesn't deny he was motivated by that potential reward. But he also said he was committed to providing people with a medical alternative they hadn't been able to legally access before — and it was important to him to do it the right way.
"Still, a decade later, we've never put a sign on the road," he said, describing the low-key, respectful marketing approach he takes with his dispensary and how he has worked diligently to promote the adoption of high testing standards by the state so that cannabis consumers are assured of a quality product.
The blue building on Broadway
The nondescript, blue, metal building at 534 E. Broadway Ave. in Farmington that houses Little's New Mexico Alternative Care gives little to no indication of serving as a marijuana dispensary from the outside, other than the small folding sign set up in the parking lot that features the telltale green cross that has come to be synonymous with the industry.
The building's few windows are tinted darkly, and it's a safe bet that many of the thousands of motorists who zip past it each day on one of the city's busier thoroughfares have never given it a second thought.
But as a visitor gets within a few feet of the front door, the air becomes thick with the sharp, pungent aroma of pot, leaving little doubt about the nature of the establishment. New Mexico Alternative Care is a bustling, significant business concern, employing 19 people and serving a patient roster in San Juan County that features 1,700 names.
It's a far cry from the early days. Little said it took a year for him to get his application for his license approved by the state, and then he faced a six-month moratorium while the City of Farmington decided how to zone the business. He started construction on his first dispensary in April 2011 and opened it later that year at a location on Browning Parkway.
But those were relatively minor issues compared to the challenge of building a market for his new business. Although he knew there was plenty of demand for his product, Little said no doctor in San Juan County in those days would approve a medical marijuana card for patients because of the stigma associated with pot, which was and remains illegal under federal law.
"We had no patients at first, no one to sell to," he said.
Undeterred, Little doubled down on his investment a few years ago and adopted a full-service business model. He recruited a handful of doctors from Albuquerque and established a medical practice, an organization now know as the San Juan Medical Cannabis Center that promotes an alternative approach to health care.
Little painstakingly built a patient base over the years. That first month in business, he had only eight patients. The list grew to 10 the second month, then 12. But as his venture grew more established, it developed momentum and eventually that patient list would blossom to close to 2,000 people.
Along the way, Little said he led the fight for more stringent testing standards in the state, something he believed would chase away medical marijuana operators who were devoted primarily to maximizing their profit rather than emphasizing patient wellness.
"Our regulations for testing are 10 times better than in Colorado or Oregon," he said.
Little boasts that the marijuana he grows and sells is "clean" — not just free of any chemicals or pesticides, but also fecal matter.
"There's no poop of any kind," Little said.
He also has encouraged the state to test for impurities such as mold and bacteria, harmful elements that he claims are common in the pot sold in states with lower standards than New Mexico.
"We have a very clean grow that allows us to do what very few dispensaries do," he said.
'It was like crickets here'
The quality of his product is what Little said allowed New Mexico Alternative Care to weather the storm when Colorado citizens voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012. Initially, he watched in dismay as much of his patient base migrated north, purchasing its weed in such southwest Colorado towns as Durango, Cortez or Mancos.
"It was like crickets here," he said.
Little said he interviewed many of the dispensary operators in those towns and learned that by 2014, 50% to 60% of their revenue was coming from New Mexicans. He said he saw a corresponding revenue drop of 35% to 40% at his business.
But many of his customers who had defected came to realize the quality of the Colorado pot they were ingesting was not up to the standards of the products Little was producing, he said. They slowly returned, allowing him to recapture and even build on his patient base. These days, Little believes his products' reputation for quality speaks for itself, and he no longer sees a sizable portion of his market being siphoned off by Colorado dispensaries.
But that doesn't mean Little is without competition. Over the past couple of years, a handful of other dispensaries have moved into San Juan County, including Ultra Health at 4251 E. Main St., a company with dozens of locations throughout the state; and PurLife at 3024 E. Main St., a Colorado company that operates eight stores in New Mexico. He acknowledged the opening of those shops has impacted his numbers, but he said he has retained the lion's share of the local market.
Little believes the operators of those ventures are betting on the come, banking on the idea that New Mexico lawmakers finally will approve a recreational marijuana bill in the upcoming session and setting the state up as another wide-open market for pot sales. But he maintains the trust he has established over 10 years as a local operator who provides a high-quality product will see him through this challenge, as well.
Nor is he worried about losing customers to Arizona, where voters approved a recreational marijuana measure earlier this month. The lack of sizable communities in eastern Arizona capable of supporting dispensaries will insulate him from the loss of business he experienced from Colorado six years ago, he said.
Likewise, he doesn't fret over the prospect of hemp being grown on the Navajo Nation, even as some of those farmers have been accused recently of growing marijuana. Little said his understanding is that any pot that may have been grown there was destined for markets elsewhere and was not likely to wind up on the black market in the Four Corners area.
What the future holds
If anything, Little seems bullish about the future of New Mexico Alternative Care. The building it moved into in August 2017 from its original location is a beehive of activity, employing a staff of mostly young and very friendly workers who seem to genuinely enjoy what they do in a relaxed, upbeat atmosphere. The structure consists of several thousand square feet and soon will enter the third stage of its build-out, allowing Little to continue to refine his techniques and improve his efficiencies.
While he believes there are elements of the recreational marijuana measure that state lawmakers are likely to see in January that could be better, he supports its adoption, believing the state badly needs the revenue it will generate. He also fully supports the idea of adults having the freedom to access and use those products as they see fit, bristling at the federal government's insistence on continuing to label pot as a Schedule I drug — a substance supposedly on par with heroin, LSD, ecstasy and peyote, and one that has "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."
"Marijuana being a Schedule I drug is a total atrocity to the American people," Little said, almost snarling when he considers the claim it has no medical value. "Those things are not true. I have proven time and time and time again it does have medical benefits. I can show you blood reports that prove it."
Little talks proudly of the hundreds of patients he has helped over the years, many of whom had their medication donated to them by his company. Marijuana has not just helped alleviate their pain and anxiety, he claims, but reduced the intensity and frequency of their seizures, and even arrested or reversed cancerous growths.
He also believes pot has a valuable role to play in treating the depression many local residents are experiencing as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, continuing to cost people their livelihoods and keeping them socially isolated.
"The COVID mental issues can really be softened and calmed down with cannabis," he said.
Little said when he tells folks what he does for a living, he rarely encounters much negativity, even in the early days when the industry was in its infancy in New Mexico. Mostly, he said, they are curious, and the acceptance of the use of cannabis as a legitimate medical treatment seems to grow by the month.
He welcomes that change in perception and seems deeply comfortable with his decision to go all-in on medical marijuana a decade ago.
"This is where I should be," he said, smiling broadly. "It feels great."
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or email@example.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.