Tracey Lancaster Miller, executive VP of the Peake ReLeaf medical cannabis dispensary in Rockville, Maryland, speaks with the relaxed but confident optimism of someone with over a decade in the industry. The Baltimore-area native moved to Denver in 2008 to work in Colorado’s medical cannabis program.
In 2014, after then-governor Martin O’Malley signed a bill approving medical cannabis in Maryland, Miller and her business partners Warren Lemley and Nate Miller—also Maryland natives—began to kick around the idea of opening a dispensary in their home state.
Once the medical program was officially approved, Tracey and Nate returned to the east coast and began assembling a team to realize their dream of opening a medical cannabis facility in Maryland. After years of delay and red tape, Peake ReLeaf opened its doors in May 2018.
The Long Road to Medical Cannabis
In a sitdown with DOPE Magazine, Miller spoke extensively about the challenges of being the first dispensary to open in Rockville, a suburb of D.C. about 35 minutes from the White House. Rockville is the seat of Montgomery County, one of the most affluent and educated counties in the nation.
“We waited over a year; it was the slowest rollout of a medical program in the entire country,” said Miller. “The city of Rockville was very receptive to us being here, it was just the little details … how do you zone? How much parking do you need? We had our lease for a year before we opened.”
Unfortunately for the Peake ReLeaf team, the challenges didn’t end once they were finally cleared to do business.
A Local Player in a National Industry
Residents criticize Maryland’s medical industry for the large number of dispensaries owned by national conglomerates, as opposed to local entrepreneurs like Miller and her team. About 500 yards north of Peake ReLeaf’s retail location—which sits appropriately between a music superstore and a barbecue restaurant—is the Maryland dispensary location for Harvest Health and Recreation, Inc., one of the largest cannabis companies in the nation with retail shops in eight different states. In 2018, Harvest raised almost $300 million in venture funding, followed by another infusion of $225 million in 2019.
Miller described their situation as doubly challenging: Not only does Peake ReLeaf operate in a brand-new industry facing heavy scrutiny and regulation, they don’t have nine figures of investment money coming in each year to help navigate that regulation.
“We are an independent license. We don’t have other licenses in Maryland,” she said. “We’re not owned by a company with licenses in any [other] states. We don’t create our own products and we’re not affiliated with growers … so we have to be very creative in making sure that we’re able to stay open for business, while still being competitive with our neighbors.”
And like all other cannabis businesses, their ability to market through traditional media channels is severely restricted.
“We’re on our third Instagram account,” said Kevin Johnson, Jr., director of creative marketing for Peake ReLeaf. Johnson told DOPE how a simple Facebook ad promoting a community hike, with no mention of cannabis products or sales and explicit instructions that consumption would not be allowed, was initially removed by Facebook moderators. He had to email an explanation and wait for the appeal to be reviewed before the ad was finally allowed to run.
“We don’t create our own products. We have very little control of the pricing for patients. What we do have control of is the experience our patients have when they come into the facility.”
What will bloom in the future?
Like local businesses in every industry, Peake ReLeaf’s owners believe an emphasis on serving the community will be their greatest asset.
“Our goal is to make Peake ReLeaf a community center,” said Miller. “I want people to be comfortable coming here … I want us to have events like the ReLeaf hike so that we’re not just a place where people can get medicine, but also meet like-minded people, where they can talk to people about their problems, things like that.”
“We want to bring value to the community not as a dispensary but as a community advocate,” added Johnson. “We’ve partnered with other organizations to have alternative healing workshops where we’ve brought in different experts in different fields, and we’re planning on doing more things like that.”
Johnson, whose son is on the autism spectrum, also talked about the company’s role in helping to normalize cannabis as a legitimate medical treatment worthy of more research and discussion.
“I was at an autism conference speaking on some experiences with my son and autism in communities of color, but I would love to have the space to be able to have a dialogue about cannabis and autism, or pediatric care and cannabis,” he said. “But sometimes you get pushback from participants in those types of conferences, because cannabis is still cannabis.”
Though Miller says the company would like to one day expand into the manufacturing side of the industry, for now Peake ReLeaf’s goal is the same as it’s been since the business was only an idea among friends—providing Maryland medical cannabis patients with a great experience and serving as a beacon of healing and community.