Featured The Hustle

Madison dispensary Herbal Aspects finds success navigating legal minefield; expands to three locations

Herbal Aspect co-owners Alex Gish and Alan Robinson opening a shipment. Photo by Omar Waheed.

Medication from mother earth. Madison-based dispensary Herbal Aspect provides legal weed while writing the playbook on how to sell marijuana in line with laws that keep the business in a precarious status.

Herbal Aspect, a dispensary with three locations in Madison, provides delta 8 THC. What sets Herbal Aspect apart from dispensaries in states where recreational marijuana is legal is the maturity of the plants. Its co-owner, Alan Robinson, was inspired to find ways to bring legal marijuana in Wisconsin by the impact it had on his life, even as the legislature lags behind compared to other states around the country.

“I realized, as a pharmaceutical sales representative at the time, I was gaining a better understanding of the pharmacology of the medications I was using to treat myself with,” Robinson said. “I decided that a much more holistic approach that didn’t involve those side effects was at least worth exploring.”

Robinson struggles with ADHD and depression. As a pharmaceutical sales representative, he gained a better understanding of the medications he was using and decided that it was better to try an alternative. Robinson “dipped my toes in,” the cannabis business, and started getting into the advocacy side of marijuana legalization in Wisconsin.

His journey saw him serve as the executive director of Wisconsin’s chapter for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in 2019. He received a national award from NORML in 2020 for outstanding cannabis advocacy. Robinson ended up moving away from advocacy, as he found the work stuck at an impasse between state regulation and legislation on marijuana.

Robinson decided to be the solution he wanted to see, and find a way to bring legal marijuana to Wisconsin, despite the legislature’s reluctance to legalize.

“I just came to the conclusion that we were at an impasse from a reform standpoint,” Robinson said. “If all I could do was make high quality cannabis products available by exercising loopholes that the federal government made available, then that is what I would do.”

Robinson and co-owner Alex Gish have been operating Herbal Aspect since 2020. The store was initially online, but as the following grew, and Robinson saw proof of concept, he opened physical stores.

At Herbal Aspect, the product is different from those found in places like Illinois or Minnesota, in order to operate within Wisconsin and federal legal guidelines. In states where recreational use is legal, plants are allowed to grow into full maturity, while Herbal Aspect’s products are harvested before they reach the stages that allow for higher levels of THC.

“The big difference is that your Illinois, your Michigan, your Minnesota cannabis is allowed to be a little bit more mature. It is allowed to mature like a wine would during the curing process,” Robinson said.

The weed sold at Herbal Aspect is “zombified,” as Robinson calls it, while using selectively bred plants that go through a rigorous quality check process to ensure it follows the few allowances the state allows.

The shop has your run-of-the-mill items you would expect to find at a dispensary. You can find edibles, pre-rolled joints, flower, vapes, pipes and just about everything else you would expect. It has its own line of goods along with outside brands that it evaluates to remain up to code with Herbal Aspect’s requirements and expectations. 

Robinson takes a hard stance against anything that looks like it could be marketed towards children.

“I don’t carry anything that is geared towards kids,” Robinson said. “I’m very cognizant of the fact that I’m Black. I’m very cognizant of the fact that we have news stations here [in Madison] that would be very excited to produce a news report that says, ‘such and such store sold such and such cannabinoid that caused such and such kid to overdose.’”

Keeping things on the up and up is always on Robinson’s mind. To keep things going as smoothly as possible, Robinson believes in having a good lawyer, acquiring certifications and licenses and — most importantly — hiring employees that are well paid and passionate about the business to use for progressing their own personal career development.

Robinson recalled anecdotes about a few of his employees. One, who oversees growing operations, has previous history with marijuana growing operations in legal states. Herbal Aspect buys equipment to let him grow as a grower and pad his resume with experience for when he wants to move on.

Other employees mentioned by Robinson are PhD students in fields like education.

“I know for a fact that if you want high quality employees in this day and age that you got to build with them. You got to show them that you are there to support their wants, their needs, or else they’re not going to take ownership,” Robinson said. “They have to own the customer experience; they have to own a customer’s education because… you’re changing somebody’s mind so you have to do so with care.”

While maintaining that fine balance of legality and investing in its employees, Herbal Aspect still struggles with a common issue that many dispensaries have around the country — banking.

Banks have been known to not allow accounts with dispensaries due federal legal concerns. Herbal Aspect felt the full brunt of this issue in its first year of operations.

The bank closed the account that Herbal Aspect set aside for its sales tax to pay at the end of the year. The bank, without Herbal Aspect realizing, ended up putting the business in a $45,000 tax hole. Herbal Aspect was able to dig its way out but realized it needed to find a way to fix the issue.

Herbal Aspect currently uses its payment processor as its bank. It hopes for eventual changes in banking to allow more security on its end, but the current state of things ties up its ability to finance expansions to its business.

“When there is some leniency and some changes in the banking sector, that’ll be great. It would be nice if there’s some regulatory framework for us to exist inside of that. It would be nice,” Robinson said.

Regardless of the difficulties behind the banking situation, Herbal Aspect is still doing well. It had a record-breaking month in October with $93,000 in sales and has its November total at $103,860.

Herbal Aspect currently has three locations in Madison at 2017 Winnebago St. #101, 735 S Gammon Rd. and 3547 University Ave. and online via its website and orderable on DoorDash. All stores are open every day from 10-8 p.m.