Michigan’s cannabis industry is booming. Meet four Metro Detroiters who left their careers to join it.
BY JACLYN TROP
PHOTOGRAPHY BY REBECCA SIMONOV
Anqunette Jamison Sarfoh was working as a morning news anchor at Fox 2 Detroit around 2010 when she started to develop strange symptoms, including persistent memory loss and numbness in her feet.
One day, Sarfoh recalls, her legs stopped working while she was unpacking groceries and she fell face-first on her kitchen floor. Soon after, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Later, the disease and the medication required to manage it caused stomach spasms and relentless vomiting, landed her in the emergency room.
“After the third trip [to the hospital],” she recalls, “My husband was like, ‘Why don’t you just smoke a joint?’ ”
Gorilla Glue, a strain of cannabis, stopped Sarfoh’s nausea, gave her energy, and helped her wean off of nine pharmaceuticals. “I was like, This is great! Just being able to go home, have a puff, and walk my dogs.”
Five years ago, she left her job at the station to join the effort to legalize recreational cannabis in Michigan — which then only allowed the drug for medical use — and bring the same benefits she experienced to Metro Detroiters, first as an advocate for the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association and then as the founder of Corktown dispensary BontaniQ. (The Q is a bow to her on-air nickname at Fox 2.)
Since 2018, when marijuana became legal for recreational use in Michigan, the cannabis industry has attracted many Metro Detroiters like Sarfoh who have traded their high-profile careers for a chance to make their mark on the space. Startups, sole proprietors, and corporations are marketing hundreds of products made with cannabis, from oils to chocolate, and in Michigan, the industry is expected to reach more than $1 billion in retail sales this year, according to the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association. What’s more, there’s ample room for private operators: As of July, the largest retail operator in the state owned only 6% of the market, and the largest licensed cultivator owned less than 5%, according to industry resource Marijuana Business Daily. In other words, there’s a lot of, shall we say, green to go around.
While entrepreneurs are chasing success, consumers are chasing more than just the high associated with THC, which is only one of hundreds of compounds found in cannabis. The most popular of these compounds, known as CBD, provides the healing effects of marijuana without the psychoactive effects of THC — and that, Sarfoh says, is what her customers were seeking; they wanted relief from conditions from chronic pain to mental-health issues. “If you count anxiety, I would say that 80% of the people who reach out to me have some sort of medical issue,” she says.
In 2019 Sarfoh began hosting “educational tea parties” where she served CBD-infused tea alongside a cannabis nurse (a registered nurse who’s been trained in using cannabis for medical conditions), first at Copper House, Detroit’s first “bud and breakfast” (more on that later), and then on Zoom during the pandemic. “When I came out of the cannabis closet,” says Sarfoh, now 50, “I had a lot of people reach out to me to help them make suppositories, tinctures, and pills.”
Sarfoh launched a line of CBD-infused products earlier this year at QultureClub.com. Next up: she and her husband — who sold BotaniQ in 2019 — are building a 40,000-square-foot facility in Warren to harvest cannabis and produce CBD- and THC-infused items including gummies, chocolates, and hard candy. They aim to have plants in the ground by November and begin their first harvest early next year. “I’m humbled,” she says. “Because I was on TV, people feel like they can trust me, and I don’t want to betray that trust.”
Michigan’s marijuana industry has also attracted seasoned entrepreneurs. Aric Klar, 32, of West Bloomfield is perhaps best known as the owner of Toyology, a toy store he founded in 2011 with his brother, Jonathan, and grew to five locations across Metro Detroit (two have closed due to the pandemic).
Part of Toyology’s success has hinged on Klar’s ability to pounce on trends — in 2017, for example, he predicted the “fidget craze” and identified soon-to-expire patents on the tactile blocks, balls, and spinners. Toyology built and sold millions of units in the short time before the trend waned. “It gave us a lot of validation and authenticity in the specialty toy and gift category,” says Klar, who around that time visited factories in China to learn about taking products from concept to completion, and eventually dedicated 30% of Toyology stores to their private label brand. “You have to be able to ride that wave.”
Meanwhile, Klar was tracking another, decidedly more adult market. He began watching cannabis the industry develop in Oregon, California, and Colorado, which were among the first states to legalize it. “The one thing I realized that was not happening well was retail,” he says. “There was no real merchandising, aesthetics, positioning, or branding. When it became legal in Michigan, we decided to make a very sizable family investment in the cannabis space.”
In 2018 he and Jonathan launched Quality Roots, a local chain of dispensaries, to provide the education and customer interaction he felt was missing. “We don’t have budtenders. We have patient care specialists.” (He explains that budtenders simply sell the product, while patient care specialists “sell education, friendship and product.) “We ‘care’ for everyone that walks through our doors.”
After debuting stores in Hamtramck and Battle Creek, Quality Roots won licenses to open branches in Berkley, Waterford, and Westland — especially competitive districts due to their limited number of licenses. Klar attributes the company’s success to preparation. “We’re putting in an application that screams ‘Ready, set, go,’” he says. “We’ve worked very hard the last four years procuring this.”
Rather than expand to other states, Klar — who plans to triple the company’s 50-person workforce within the year — says he’ll stay focused on perfecting Quality Roots’ pipeline in Michigan. “That’s the coolest part about the business,” he says, referring to its growth potential. “That I don’t know what’s going to happen six to eight months from now.”
While Sarfoh and Klar are setting up shop in the suburbs, entrepreneurs like Jess Jackson are staking a claim on Detroit’s cannabis scene. In 2019, Jackson and her wife Jacqara founded Copper House, Detroit’s first “bud and breakfast,” in their Bagley neighborhood home. Copper House curates experiences, produces content, and offers delivery service for cannabis. “[It’s] like a cannabis-friendly Airbnb,” Jackson says.
A lifelong Detroiter, Jackson, 34, began her career as a teacher. After graduating from the University of Michigan, she moved to Delaware to work as a housing administrator at the University of Delaware, a role that entailed crisis response to trauma. “I started to use cannabis as a way to deal with the pressures of the job and be more holistic with my care,” she says. “It expanded my perspective of what taking care of myself with plants could look like.”
In 2018, when the recreational use of cannabis was on the state ballot, Jackson and Jacqara “decided we wanted to move home and be part of developing the industry in Michigan,” she says. “We had no idea what that was going to look like.” She also became involved in Michigan’s Social Equity Program, created to “address the disproportionate impact of the war on drugs,” she says.
These days, budandbreakfast.com, a site that displays cannabis-friendly accommodations worldwide, shows dozens of listings around Metro Detroit — a trend that Jackson had a hand in starting. “I had to figure out my niche within cannabis,” she says, adding that she’s looking to expand her venture to another location, something she calls a “holistic healing resort” in Idlewild, 35 miles east of Ludington. “There [are] lots of ways for me to get involved.”
Like Jackson, Nir Saar has also turned his passion for cannabis into a career. “I have been smoking since I was 12,” says the Berkley resident, who grew up in West Bloomfield. “I very much believe in the benefits of it.” Saar, 39, studied neuroscience at the University of Michi-gan and joined Teach for America after college, teaching seventh-grade special education at a school in Philadelphia. “It was a highly stressful time,” he says. “I was sleeping only three or four hours a night for two years.”
He moved back to Michigan in 2011 and joined CS Partners, a Brighton-based education management company. At 29, he became the principal of a charter school in Southfield; he went on to hold principal-ships in Novi and Detroit. In all, he started or helped start a half-dozen schools. “It was an extremely tough job, but I had almost full autonomy, and we were moving the needle,” he says. “Kids were objectively defying the odds on test scores, and there was some excitement around it.”
Still, a combination of factors — among them, becoming a father — prompted Saar to seek out a less-demanding career. So when a childhood friend offered the opportunity to join Doghouse, an Oregon-based cannabis brand, as chief operating officer, he jumped in. Plus, Doghouse’s founder, Jon Hudnall, worked with world-class geneticists for 15 years to develop his own growing methodology, which appealed to Saar’s science background. “When people ask if I miss being a principal, the honest answer is hardly ever,” Saar says. “I still keep in touch with many of my old students and play an active role in their lives and between that and raising my own kids, I’m good.”
Known as a premier grower on the West Coast, Doghouse grows and sells high-end, connoisseur-quality cannabis to dispensaries in Oregon, Washington, as well as Michigan. As of press time, the company was planning to open its own dispensary in Muskegon Heights in August, where it will manufacture THC-infused edibles and beverages, as well as expand its cultivation sites in Michigan and Florida.
As a partner in the business, Saar is involved in multiple areas, from branding to human resources, but he works fewer hours than he did as a school principal. “To me, this job feels like a vacation,” he says. “I work with my friends, and I get to wear shorts to work. Overall, the transition couldn’t have been any better.”