The New Mexico medical cannabis program has come a long way since its creation in 2007. Patients and producers alike have experienced every peak and valley along the way. None more so than The Verdes Foundation, who currently stands as the leading provider of medical cannabis in the state of New Mexico.
That title is testament to the values held by The Verdes Foundation and its commitment to customer service, education, and community involvement. With three Registered Nurses on staff that provide free consultations to medical patients, the Verdes brand prides itself on safe access to quality medicine.
IN THE BEGINNING
The concept of the foundation began actualizing in 2009 when father/son duo Doug and Eric Speegle submitted a Licensed Non-Profit Producer application to the Department of Health. The Department of Health issued the license on December 31, 2010.
After utilizing a 2,000 sq. ft. barn in Tijeras to house the cultivation operation, and with solely call-to-order and website driven business, The Verdes Foundation’s reputation for quality medicine began to spread.
“It has always been a family operation,” explains Rachael Speegle (R.N., Eric’s wife, and then nurse at Presbyterian Hospital). Rachael would work three, 10 hour shifts at the hospital and spend the other four days a week working in the grow with the plants, while Eric and Doug oversaw the grow and daily operations. Paula Speegle, Eric’s Mom managed the administrative responsibilities and Doug delivered product to patient’s homes.
The company has never had any outside investors; all of the original capital came from small family loans.
“We don’t have investors because we want to maintain control of our business, once you have investors the conversation shifts to profits, instead of medicine”
says Eric Speegle. Verdes’ popularity eventually prompted the search for a retail space in 2011 but it took longer than expected, due to the common negative bias against cannabis.
Property owners were resistant to the use because they feared property seizure; misunderstandings and prejudice against the budding industry were common in 2011.
In 2012, The Verdes Foundation acquired its first retail space complete with one 3,800 square foot warehouse that is located in an industrial complex in the Northeast Heights of Albuquerque.
The minimally decorated retail space intentionally felt like a doctor’s office, to emphasize the medicinal aspect of the business. For the first time, Verdes’ patients could come to a physical location to access their medicine.
With business steadily growing through the beginning of 2013, The Verdes Foundation acquired its second warehouse within the complex, bringing the facility’s total area to 7,600 square feet.
A CHANGE IN THE DISPENSARY
Rachael Speegle remembers, “I was up front one day, when I overheard our customer service representative speaking with a patient. The patient was asking a sequence of medical questions on how to better utilize cannabis for their health.
That’s when I first realized that nursing services could be beneficial in a medical cannabis dispensary.” It was at this moment that Rachael Speegle began rethinking her time in cultivation and instead began providing support for patients at the front counter.
“A new service-oriented model was being created for Verdes, one that emphasized patient support and education above all else.”
In order to implement her vision of this new model Rachael quit her job as a Presbyterian Hospital nurse in 2014.
Verdes decided to undergo a remodel in late 2014 in order to normalize the purchasing experience, allowing patients to see their medicine and interact with it prior to purchasing. Moving away from the previous minimal, drab, doctor-like space, the company chose a more retail friendly layout. “Now,” says Eric Speegle, “you walk in to see a long display case with all of our products, and behind them are digital menus detailing each cases’ contents.
We want people to feel comfortable interacting with their medicine and in order to do that we had to make the experience of purchasing cannabis feel less awkward.” The company has decided against a bouncer at the door and allows non-card-holding family members and friends into the facility.
Rachael Speegle reinforces this decision by stating, “You don’t need to leave your kids or family in the car when you go to Walgreens, why should cannabis be any different? If this is medicine, let’s treat it like medicine.”
The second component re-examined at The Verdes Foundation was the customer service culture. Verdes does not have “bud-tenders”. The staff take exception to the word, which is a spin-off of bar tender. “Medicine isn’t sold by a bar tender, why should it be sold by a ‘bud tender’”, asks Rachael Speegle, RN. “It isn’t cute or a joke, people are betting their life on these products and making a comparison to bar tending diminishes the value of our staff.”
Providing customer service representatives with additional cannabis training resources is one of the key functions of the Verdes nurses. Prioritizing education has given the staff the knowledge to interact with and educate any patient on product usage and symptom relief. The Verdes team works tirelessly to ensure patients leave feeling more empowered in the utilization of their medication.
In January of 2015, Verdes started offering free nursing consultations to medical cannabis patients within NM. Rachael Speegle was the first nurse in NM to offer this support but she quickly realized she could not keep up by herself.
While eating a slice of pizza at Costco and telling her husband, Eric, about the impossible task of meeting every patient’s need, Eric suggested she reach out to a nurse colleague Briana Perez, who had been a huge inspiration and support while working at the hospital.
Rachael took this advice, knowing it was unlikely Briana would leave her secure hospital job of 12 years. With very little coaxing, Briana is now a full time nurse for the Verdes Foundation.
One year later, the nursing need increased again, so Verdes hired Rachel Furnari as the third full time registered nurse.
Patients now have the option to meet with a nurse for one hour in a welcoming office, removed from the retail space to receive best-use advice in cannabis products. The three nurses combine their different specialties of Oncology, Critical Care, Cardiology, Psych and Pediatrics to insure proper support to a large range of medical cannabis patients.
Within six months of starting the Nursing Consultation Program, business at The Verdes Foundation had grown from serving 45 patients a day to over 300.
Every patient consult is another personal connection made, which has further developed patients’ loyalty to the Verdes brand. The Verdes Foundation is now the go to for many NM physicians looking for support when recommending cannabis to their patients.
The nurses taught a continuing education event in August of 2016, for GAMA (Greater Albuquerque Medical Association), where physicians from all over the State learned more about the medical benefits of the cannabis.
With the demand for medical cannabis within New Mexico growing, and the popularity of The Verdes Foundation following suit, the 150 plant count limit put forth by the State resulted in a supply shortage. As soon as the opportunity was presented, Verdes purchased the highest plant count available from the DOH, expanding their grow operation to 450 plants. They took over a third warehouse in order to accommodate the new additions, bringing total square feet up to 11,400.
The Verdes Foundation acquired the last suite in its complex this year, bringing the total square footage of the operation to 17,000. The newly acquired 5,000 square foot space is utilized for administrative offices. The Speegles now look to expand into outdoor cultivation, where they can utilize the sun to grow quality medicine.
The Verdes Foundation’s second location is set to open in Rio Rancho in October, 2016. Rachael Speegle says of the venture, “I’m excited to make our medicine more accessible to Rio Rancho residents.” The new location is a larger retail space that contains a waiting area, nursing offices, and more square footage for patient privacy. The husband and wife team decided to design the retail space with the female shopper in mind. “We want women to feel safe and inspired to walk into our store. The design is meant to be clean and aesthetically pleasing, allowing us to maintain our patient-centric culture,” Speegle explains. In addition to the new location, a new and more user-friendly website will soon be introduced in 2016. Patients will be able to see current availability, reserve their medicine, and access educational documents/videos from the comfort of their home.
Today, The Verdes Foundation sees anywhere from 275-325 patients a day at its sole, eastside location. The demographic of this patient base is comprised of both young and old, women and men, with qualifying conditions ranging from cancer to PTSD. All of who are reaping medicinal benefits from cannabis.
Regularly speaking to physicians and medical support groups, Verdes’ nursing staff hopes to expand the medical community’s understanding of cannabis and human body. Fostering these physician/cannabis nurse interactions is a necessity, as the endocannabinoid system is not taught in medical school. Further, in an aim to normalize cannabis within the world of business, both Rachael Speegle and General Manager Hillary Carroll have formed the Albuquerque chapter, Women Grow. A professional networking organization that insures women have leadership opportunities within the cannabis industry. The Albuquerque Women Grow chapter has been meeting on the first Thursday of every month since November 2014, in an effort to further legitimize the cannabis industry.
Medically Orphaned Pets, or M.O.P.s as it is commonly referred to, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that was created in 2016 to find homes for pets that were orphaned due to their owner’s deteriorating health. “As our patient base grew we began to see more and more displaced animals, and we just had to do something about it,” says Rachael. Now M.O.P.s offers relocation services (kenneling, foster homes, shots and visits to the vet) free of charge to patients in these circumstances. The organization continues to offer financial assistance for the rest of the pet’s life, once a new family adopts them.
“If you’re not actively making your community a better place, then you’re passively making it worse” Says Rachael Speegle. “This opportunity comes with a great responsibility to improve the lives of our employees, patients, and community. Eric and I take that responsibility seriously.”
Ultimately, combat bias with professionalism and education.
By Jessie Stephens