ANN ARBOR, MI — Normalizing cannabis has been Mark Passerini’s goal since the 1990s.
In 1993, the Om of Medicine owner learned cannabis was decriminalized in Ann Arbor after he and his friend were pulled over by a local police officer. It led him to pursue his passion in the area.
He wanted to normalize and educate others on the plant that he spent years consuming, so he did some research on California’s model, promoted health care studies on the benefits of marijuana and conceived his business.
This year, he celebrates 10 years at Om of Medicine.
“The movement started in California. All of the dispensaries were serving their patients in a very similar passion, shoulder to shoulder with little to no privacy,” Passerini said. “We wanted to make sure we weren’t going to follow the norm that I saw in California. We wanted to change the model on how patients were served. We focused on one-on-one private consultations. We focused on the research. We, I think to this day, are the only ones with a chief medical officer.”
Om of Medicine partnered with the University of Michigan, where Passerini graduated, for research on the benefits of cannabis to treat medical issues, discovering that cannabis use led to a 64% decrease in opioid use. He later received a call from the head of neurology at Henry Ford Hospital about a partnership, he said.
“My favorite memory was a phone call I received in 2012. This was my earliest, big happy moment, when the phone call was an assistant from the head neurologist at Henry Ford Hospital,” Passerini said. “I wasn’t sure who they were really trying to reach. They wanted to let us know that a lot of their epilepsy patients have come in and told them that what we were providing to them was extremely helpful.
“Ever since then, we had a good relationship. They sent us numerous patients,” he continued. “We’ve seen amazing turnarounds and success stories from epilepsy patients.”
But it wasn’t always a breeze for Passerini.
His passion stems in dismantling “the war on drugs” and removing the stigma toward marijuana. Personally, he reached a low point when his friend was arrested for operating a similar dispensary in another municipality in Michigan.
“One of my very good friends was arrested and federally charged early on within the first couple of years of opening … He ended up having to do two years in federal prison for doing the exact same thing I was doing in Ann Arbor,” Passerini said. “Depending on what city or municipality you operated in put you at risk. In Ann Arbor, they decriminalized in 1972. We were welcomed with open arms.”
Seeing his friend go through the legal system was “crazy unfair” because “he was doing everything with state law … That was definitely a low point for me and for all of us. Everybody knew this individual.”
But it didn’t stop him.
“When we set out to open the Om of Medicine, one of the reasons was the fact that this plant is objectively one of the least toxic substances known to man. It’s something, I think, people lose sight of when they talk about this because of prohibition… It is based in science. It is a hard fact and something a lot of people don’t really realize. The toxicity of cannabis is really low,” Passerini said.
The retailer in 2017 was waiting to be licensed for the medical program and had to fight the state to remain open while waiting on the certification.
“There was a threat on all dispensaries … they’d be shut down,” said Lisa Conine, director of community outreach for Om. “On the flip side, that’s one of my favorite memories just in the sense of how everyone came together. We were able to advocate for the work that we were doing. It was a very challenging time but…displayed the resiliency of this movement. People need this medicine now we are here deemed essential.”
Years later, the team, otherwise known as the “Omies,” urged U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell to tour the facility multiple times until she agreed in May 2018.
“After much resistance, we finally got her in,” Conine said. “By the end of the tour and seeing what we do in person, she really started to soften and (said) we need more research on cannabis. A year later, we got her to speak at Hash Bash…she’s just one politician but we’ve opened our doors for local politicians.”
Then came legalization in Michigan for recreational use.
“It definitely wasn’t easy,” Passerini said, citing obstacles and a costly application process.
The company’s involvement with the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association, a group advocating for legal cannabis, made for a less complicated experience but a shift in the business model.
“That made it a little bit easier because we were so in tune with the policymakers and how the laws were written … It was a little bit easier of a transition for us. But we had to change our model. From being a one-on-one consultation to have anybody 21 and older come through our doors, we’d have to shift a bit operationally.”
Now the Omies have to shift even more in the middle of a global pandemic, which is causing the public to stay six feet apart, wear face masks and sanitize frequently. The company offers curbside sales and delivery to avoid packing the store with customers.
“They never thought they’d be able to pull up on Main Street,” Conine said. “Delivery has made a difference for our elder patients or people who don’t have transportation.”
But Passerini is anxious to bring customers back into his “mood enhancement facility.”
“Over the years, we put in so much time and effort creating a space and environment that’s inspiring and comfortable, but now that very few people are able to come, we have to bring that energy back to Main Street,” Passerini said, a Phoenix Pain Management Doctor.
But the Omies have more planned for the community. To celebrate 10 years, the team is offering a virtual concert, comedy show and yoga in the park for customers to ring in the anniversary.