High-Class Cannabis

After Montana voted to legalize recreational marijuana dispensaries in 2021, cannabis crusaders have been working to destigmatize the herb and attract a new demographic of clients in Whitefish

By Maggie Dresser
The Cannabis Counter in downtown Whitefish on June 18, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

At the Cannabis Counter located in downtown Whitefish, shoppers can wander into the marijuana dispensary on Baker Avenue to enter a bright storefront with a minimalist design, accented with a pastel color scheme and deliberately placed floral arrangements.

The absence of Grateful Dead jams in the background seems strategic as customers, including some who are first-time users, browse marijuana flower, edibles, tinctures and THC seltzers. Each strain is separated into five “feeling categories” that range from sleep to socialize. Next to the wall of feelings, a separate section with an illuminated green sign labeled “gummies” makes it simple for customers to find the store’s No. 1 selling product.

Next door at Haskill Creek, a retail shop pairs with the Cannabis Counter to offer customers products ranging from organic beauty supplies to supplements, and face misters to wellness planners. A café selling healthy smoothies and espresso will eventually occupy the north side of the building. While the cannabis and retail stores are separate, they are under the same ownership and share the same vision of holistic self-care.

“We wanted to make the products really accessible,” Haskill Creek and Cannabis Counter owner Scot Chisholm said. “We are trying to cater to someone who maybe has never experienced cannabis and we’ve started the concept to attract a different demographic. We realized there was an overlap.”

When Chisholm first launched the business at its debut location on Voerman Road outside of Whitefish city limits, he intended it to primarily serve as a marijuana dispensary whose offerings included a selection of retail products unrelated to cannabis. But after demand for the boutique side of the store grew, he and his business partners secured a second location next to Markus Foods where they expanded the inventory.

The boutique concept brings a high volume of women into both stores, which Chisholm says is unique in the realm of dispensary demographics.

According to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study published in 2021, experts found that cannabis use is most common among sociodemographic characteristics that skew toward young minority populations with a lower socioeconomic status.

Jars of marijuana infused gummies on display at the Cannabis Counter in downtown Whitefish on June 18, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

But at the Cannabis Counter, employee William Peirano said he sees a higher percentage of female customers and adults over age 55, which contrasts with the traditional demographic. In Whitefish, there’s an equal ratio of men to women while 22% of the population is over age 65, according to 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data.

Peirano said he’s noticed the stigma surrounding the cannabis industry has been shrinking since Montana legalized marijuana in 2021, even though it’s still federally recognized as a Schedule I drug alongside heroin under the Controlled Substances Act.

Montana legalized medical marijuana in 2009 followed by recreational marijuana more than a decade later in 2021, with 57% of voters casting ballots in favor of legalization following the passage of ballot Initiative 190. Recreational dispensaries in Whitefish began launching the following year.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis, more than half of Americans live in a state where both recreational and medical marijuana are legal and 74% live in a state where it’s legal either for both, or for medical use only. About eight in 10 Americans live in a county with at least one cannabis dispensary.

As cannabis becomes destigmatized, dispensaries are diversifying their customer base to include users who might have previously bought their bud on the black market as well as the stay-at-home mom. Dispensary staff say the stores now draw seniors who, decades earlier, were discouraged from using cannabis by a culture that embraced anti-marijuana messaging such as that popularized in the “Reefer Madness” film.

Haskill Creek herbal medicine store in downtown Whitefish on June 18, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“Older adults seem more curious,” Peirano said. “When you come into a place like this, it changes your perspective – people are starting to come around.”

At Mission Mountain Organics in Whitefish, Tyler and Kathleen Peterson said they see the whole spectrum of cannabis users in their store, where they sell everything from $1 pre-rolled joints to concentrated cartridges used for vape pens.

“We get everyone from homeless people to the upper echelon of Whitefish,” Kathleen said. “We get a lot of new users – they come in and have a lot of questions.”

Tyler said the nursing home shuttle service drops some of their biggest customers off at the store.

“We are a huge hit with the nursing home,” Tyler said.

Tyler and Kathleen say they have a fairly equal ratio of men and women who shop at their store, and they also sell an even amount of their top selling products – flower, edibles and vape cartridges.

Kathleen says that while flower will likely always remain popular among users, vape pens and edibles have grown in popularity because of their discretion.

“People still feel the need to have that discretion and the disposables and cartridges are way more discrete than a joint that everyone can smell or the flower that you have to use a bong or a pipe – especially for new people who don’t always feel super comfortable because they still view it as drugs,” Kathleen said.

Mission Mountain Organics cannabis shop in Whitefish on June 20, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

At Tamarack Cannabis in downtown Whitefish, co-owner Erin Bolster has been in the industry for more than a decade and said she, too, sees a wide range of customers, ranging from minors using a medical marijuana card to seniors in their nineties.

“We see the gamut when it comes to the political spectrum,” Bolster said. “Montana is a red state, yet we still passed recreational cannabis. We saw that coming because our customers run the political gamut from far left to far right. Everyone who comes in – this is the thing they have in common,” Bolster said. “The love of this plant is universal and it’s hard today to find things Americans can agree on. We see business professionals, lawyers, city councilors, stay-at-home moms – almost anyone unless their job prohibits them.”

Peirano of the Cannabis Counter believes the store’s aesthetic contributes to the changing demographic, as well as a broader understanding of the properties of pot; customers aren’t just looking to get high anymore, Peirano said, they’re pursuing it as sleep aids and alcohol alternatives.

“It looks bougier – it’s not your typical experience,” he said. “The demographic is changing, and I feel like it’s more socially acceptable.”

Jars of marijuana flower at Tamarack Cannabis in Whitefish on June 20, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

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