Helen Gomez Andrews of The High End has long been a cannabis enthusiast and proponent of legalization, but her daughter’s epilepsy diagnosis in 2015 took her commitment to a whole new level. At the time, Andrews, who was working in finance, became one of New York’s first medical card holders.
“The experience opened our eyes to how underserved patients were,” she says, “between an extreme lack of information and support from the medical community, to the limited choices and access.” She recalls one incident in which her medical cannabis provider doubled the THC in the oil she was using to treat her six-year-old daughter without telling her. “To be treated that way by a medical provider made me feel hopeless,” she says. “It was just dreadful.”
Throughout the experience, Andrews got the distinct impression that the medical market was more focused on profit than getting people medicine. As an example, she points out that major operators lobbied for a ban on home cannabis cultivation, and cites a 2019 report from the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association that detailed the various threats homegrown cannabis posed to the cannabis industry, including the assertion that “home grow will undermine the state’s public health interest in ensuring that cannabis sold in New York State is tested, packaged, and labeled correctly.”
Andrews sees this as a thinly veiled attempt to control the market. “Suggesting that it’s somehow dangerous if a mother who wants to grow a few plants in her backyard next to her tomatoes is really despicable,” she says. “It’s important to dispel the notion that only the MSOs are capable of making utility medicine—it’s damaging to the whole industry and counter to the spirit of plant medicine.”
It became clear to Andrews and her husband that if they wanted something done, they’d have to do it themselves. When Massachusetts legalized adult use, they saw an opportunity to take advantage of the relatively few restrictions to enter the market themselves. Since her husband had a culinary background, their first thought was to make a line of quality edibles along the lines of a farm-to-table experience. But they realized that even if they created an infused chocolate with organic fair trade and local ingredients, they wouldn’t be able to find cannabis grown and distilled by people who shared their ethos.
“If you look at the extraction method it’s usually butane or ethanol, and philosophically I have strong feelings about both of those,” says Andrews. “We weren’t going to find the main ingredient if we didn’t cultivate it ourselves.” They decided to go all in with a vertically-integrated business, exchanging their house in Brooklyn for a cultivation and manufacturing facility in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
While the High End may be operating under the recreational umbrella, to Andrews it’s just plant medicine under a different name. “It’s important for me as a parent to protect the medical market,” she says. She and her husband had their young cannabis patient in mind while building their cultivation practices, and she stresses the importance of living soil and organic practices.
“It’s not just about medicine—it’s about how this plant can change the way we think about things,” she says, admitting that this change doesn’t come easy. “A lot of people in the industry were telling us we were crazy even thinking about living soil—they’d say it’s a waste of time and you won’t get the THC levels you’re after,” she remembers. But she stuck with it with characteristic determination, and little by little she started to find her people. She connected with the former CEO of Colorado’s Verde Natural, one of the first cultivators to scale living soil. “Now we’re starting to connect with people all over the country who are so generous with their knowledge and super open to collaboration and information sharing,” she says.
Though Andrews prioritizes environmental ethics and quality medical care, she doesn’t believe these things have to come at the expense of the business. “I’m always banging the drum about how sustainability makes good business sense—living soil is a risk mitigant in the long term,” she says, pointing to a recent article about how the Ukraine crisis has made the prices of industrial fertilizers skyrocket, since Russia is the largest global exporter of fertilizer. The supply chain issues rocking the country since the pandemic have been a clear reminder that the industrial model may not be as reliable as it purports to be, and while the healthiest, most sustainable cultivation methods may require more upfront investment, they may actually end up being the cheapest. “It’s becoming more and more apparent in the conversations we’re having now that investors are recognizing the idea that sustainability is risk-mitigation and a long term economic strength,” Andrews says.
This does mean forgoing fast profits in the short term to focus on getting each detail right. Andrews and her husband have had to be patient while they do the necessary work to make sure their business is built on a solid foundation, including forging strong community ties. Andrews admits that people who move to Massachusetts from New York can be treated with suspicion, but she’s happy to report that she was embraced with open arms.
“During the past few years I have met some of the most amazing entrepreneurs through local networks,” she says. It helps that Andrews has been an enthusiastic participant in everything from community trash pickups to the Leadership Advisory Board at EforAll Holyoke, a strategy she encourages small business owners to adopt. “I always say raise your hand for everything—you’ll meet amazing people and expand your reach,” she says. “Now there’s the opportunity for me to be impactful in issues of market participation and medical access.”
This approach has kept her busy. Advocating for inclusive entrepreneurship in Holyoke led her to appeal to state lawmakers for structural change, which led Attorney General Maura Healey to appoint her to the Massachusetts Cannabis Advisory Board. Most recently, she was asked to speak on a panel of small business owners at MJ Unpacked in New York, where she shared her optimism for the future of community-oriented businesses. “There’s a tremendous opportunity for us to shape the industry,” she told the audience. Considering how much advocacy success she’s had before she’s even getting plants in the ground, she was speaking from experience.
Slowly but surely they are beginning to see the fruits of their labor. Phase one of the plan is almost complete; soon Andrews expects to have her plants growing in the soil she has so carefully nurtured. Though so far they have had to focus most of their resources on cultivation, for phase two they fully intend to build out their kitchen so they can start getting decadent with their edibles. “We want to be thoughtful about how we’re extracting, thoughtful about where everything is coming from, use seasonal fruit flavors and promote regenerative agriculture,” she says. Long-term, they intend to have a coffee shop where the edibles can be both purchased and consumed, and their newfound Holyoke community can come together. “Our vision is to have a place to gather,” she says. “We have to do more than just make the best cannabis—we have to advocate for our collective best interests.”