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How cannabis went from straining a family to bringing them together

Courtesy of Roberta King

Patti Kornoelje says that when her son Casey Kornoelje was a teenager, she worried about the direction in which he seemed to be heading. He had multiple encounters with law enforcement over marijuana use, which led to cannabis-related convictions and changed the trajectory of his career.

But, Patti says, sometimes certain doors open for a reason.

“I sometimes believe — I do believe — that some things are just divine,” she said. “I feel like, in this case, the doors opened for Casey.”

For Casey, that’s meant opening his own business. In March 2020, he launched Pharmhouse Wellness, a medical cannabis dispensary that has since expanded into recreational cannabis, making it the city of Grand Rapids’ first locally owned recreational cannabis business. And it’s a family operation: Patti, along with Casey’s father and wife, help out with the shop.

Casey says that his record of cannabis convictions influenced his path after high school.

“I had attempted to get into the armed services and was declined,” he said. “I did end up getting into college and finishing a college degree. But I had, after that, gone through what I felt was a pretty decent amount of labor market discrimination.”

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He later worked in corporate banking and as a caregiver. He says the latter helped shape his views on cannabis’ potential benefits.

“I've worked with terminally ill cancer patients, rheumatoid arthritis patients. My wife and her extended family have severe and chronic Crohn's disease,” he said. “These are all illnesses that I've seen cannabis directly touch and benefit in a very positive way. So it made me a believer firsthand, many years ago. And I just took that, and I always held on to that.”

Patti, who helps with deliveries and other aspects of the dispensary, says it took a while for her perspective on marijuana to change. But, she explains, Casey’s job as a caregiver helped her see cannabis in a new way. She heard stories from him about patients dealing with serious conditions who turned to medical marijuana for help with symptoms like pain or lack of appetite.

“So when you experience those kinds of experiences, it's just like, who am I to judge? Who am I to say, no, that's not OK for you?” she said. “It has completely changed my whole attitude.”

Casey explains that his past experiences, like his cannabis convictions and his work as a caregiver, are part of who he is. And, he says, because of his experiences, he’s become the first beneficiary of the city of Grand Rapids’ Cannabis Social Equity Policy.

“The social equity program, I think, at its roots, is designed to encourage and participate people in the cannabis industry who otherwise wouldn't have had so much of an opportunity to enter that marketplace,” he said. “There's a lot of regulation and taxes and fees to being a cannabis operator. So the state said, okay, we get it, you're a smaller operator. We're going to give you some breaks and try to help you on your way.”

Patti says there can be a generational divide when it comes to people’s opinions about cannabis — although her perspective has changed on it, some people she’s spoken with who are of her generation or older don’t share her current feelings. But, she says, she’s very proud of Casey’s accomplishments.

“Being in the arena that he's in now, it just — it's like, to me, it's like watching a bird take flight, you know, spreading their wings,” she said. “Just really enjoying life and what life has to offer, and the growth potential that he has. It's neat to watch that.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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