By Nicole Shih and Paula Owen
WORCESTER — When local cannabis business owner Alex Mazin’s family immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union in 1990, they were fleeing in fear of uncertainty in a region where Jews had been persecuted through much of the 20th century.
With the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, the Mazins seized their opportunity to escape and come to the U.S.
Mazin was 3 years old when his family arrived in Worcester; his older sister, Julia, 12. They grew up in the Tatnuck neighborhood. His mother, Diana Mazin, worked as an engineer in their home country and his father, Oleg Mazin, as a plumber. But here, his mother worked two jobs — at the former Big D on Park Avenue, now a Price Chopper, at night bagging groceries and during the day as a bank teller at Bank of America, also on Park Avenue. His father worked any jobs in the trades he could get, Mazin said, including plumbing, welding, floor installation and HVAC.
Mazin, 34, said his parents wanted a better life for their children and bought into the American dream. But, for his parents, that dream meant working long hours while their children were young just to survive.
“At the time the Soviet Union was collapsing and out of fear, my parents thought we had to get out of the country because we didn’t know what would actually happen,” Mazin said. “The other component is that my family is Jewish and all the history with Russia and Jews. My parents wanted to leave to give my sister and I the opportunity to do something when we got older.”
After working “any job possible,” Mazin’s dad opened a Russian-European deli in the city and ran it for five or six years. Mazin, who was a freshman at Doherty Memorial High School, helped get the business going, he said, and worked for his father in the summers. It was also during that time that he first tried cannabis — and loved it — though he said he would not start using regularly until he was 22.
When the deli closed, Mazin’s father went back to contract work, he said, and during college, he helped him install flooring.
His sister, Julia (Mazin) Krasheninin, now 44, went to Clark University and worked in the health care field at the Seven Hills Foundation, later becoming a speech pathologist. She and her two children recently moved from Worcester to Holden, but his parents still live in Worcester — his mom is 64 and dad is 65.
Parents always working
Though growing up Mazin thought his family had everything, as many children do, he realizes now that his parents spent most of their time working to make a better life for him and his sister.
“It is an immigrant-Worcester story. They were living paycheck to paycheck, but I thought we had everything,” Mazin said. “I realize now it was a grind every day for my parents.”
While attending Babson College in Wellesley majoring in business management, Mazin began interning in the health care industry until working as a consultant full time in health care in New York City when he graduated in 2009.
After 10 years in health care, he decided to start his own ancillary cannabis business in 2015 selling custom silicone cases for vaporizers while still working in the corporate world. It closed at the end of 2019.
Then, on Dec.15, 2016, when cannabis became legal for adults to grow and possess in Massachusetts, Mazin said he was excited about legalization of cannabis in his hometown and the prospect of pursuing a cannabis business in an area he understood. He also wanted to be part of the movement to transform the entire cannabis market across the country.
“My dad didn’t want me to do what he did,” Mazin said. “His dream was for me to go to college and get into the corporate world and do all those things. I went to New York City and gave my best shot at being this overachieving person, but my heart was still in starting a business. The corporate world was not enough for me. I knew I wanted to do more than that.”
With his wife, Alexa C. Mazin, 34, who is head of human resources for a hedge fund in New York City, and helping to raise their 1-year-old daughter, Arabella, Mazin said he knew he wanted more than the corporate world had to offer. He wanted to work solely for himself — something his parents could not do in the former Soviet Union because the government controlled all the business, he said.
Then, serendipitously, he was presented with an opportunity back home where he grew up in Worcester by his wife’s best friend he had known for more than a decade who was managing symptoms of multiple sclerosis with medical marijuana. By that time, Mazin was a regular cannabis user and it had become a huge part of his identity, he said.
“Our family friend dealing with the side effects of MS did not want to add drugs on top of drugs and pills on top of pills so they used cannabis to deal with the symptoms,” Mazin said. “They approached me to say they wanted to fund something they believe in and knew I had experience in cannabis and the health care industry. I was surprised they wanted to make investments to bring it to fruition for others and take it to the next level and bring it to market.”
Bud’s Goods & Provisions
An entrepreneur at heart, Mazin partnered with the family friend and founded what he calls a “Worcester grass-roots cannabis company” in 2016, opening Bud’s Goods & Provisions marijuana dispensary at 64 West Boylston St.
“My entrepreneurial spirit really comes from my father and calculated risk taking comes from my mother,” Mazin said. “I’m just trying to live the American dream. It is why my parents came here — for the dream the whole world is sold that this country offers.”
When asked about his hobbies, Mazin said he has none outside of the cannabis world.
“This is my life,” he said. “I also grow cannabis for myself for fun. My whole life revolves around it. It is what I do every day. When you sit down and acknowledge the historic aspect (of the legalization of cannabis) and you get to be a part of it, it puts things into perspective a bit. It is a culture, movement, political shift and one of the few things in this country, for the most part, I feel we agree upon.”
Mazin said oftentimes he is the “only person at a party that lights up a joint and people don’t look at me like I’m doing something taboo.”
Mazin said he takes the responsibility of breaking the stigma around cannabis use seriously, and looks forward to the possibility of the legalization of cannabis nationally while continuing to build his brand.
To that end, Mazin and his business partner have expanded the business to a shop in Abington. A third business is under construction and is expected to open in Watertown in January.
“I realize building a business is very similar to raising a person with the stages my daughter goes through,” Mazin said. “The company goes through different growth spurts and it is like being a full-time parent running your own company.
“But, as my daughter grows and develops a little personality, I realize it is easier to be an entrepreneur and parenting is much harder. And the bad days of being an entrepreneur are erased quickly when you see this little spirit running around trying to say, ‘Papa.’ “
As much as Mazin is focused on the business, his wife is focused on the baby, he said. Part of the couple’s downtime includes growing cannabis and enjoying cannabis together on the porch.
“We both love to plant and it is a great way to relax on the porch and unwind,” he said. “We are not big alcohol drinkers. She always tells me she gets a front-row seat to watching this happen and she knows more about cannabis than most people. We go down in the grow room and take care of plants together. We grow them in pots — no pun intended.
“From the moment I open my eyes to the moment I close my eyes, I’m doing something cannabis-related.”
Shifting ‘legacy market’ into legal one
Mazin said part of the excitement of running Bud’s Goods has been thinking about how he can transform cannabis consumers’ buying behavior, transitioning them from buying cannabis in an illegal market, known in the cannabis industry as the “legacy market,” to a legal market, which is good for consumers because they are not breaking the law and putting themselves in a position to get into trouble, he explained.
The business’ first white-label product — a product produced by another company — Lil’ Bud’s is designed to focus on shifting cannabis consumers from the old way of buying cannabis on the street and other illegal places into the legal market, according to Mazin.
It is also one of the first white-label products in the state, he said.
“We don’t grow our own products, but we source our product,” Mazin said. “So we look for the best producers in the state, and we source the flowers for Lil’ Bud’s. What I do know is that the majority of cannabis consumers in Massachusetts are still buying in the ‘legacy market’ (and) still not buying from a legal retail store,” he said.
Mazin hopes to create an affordable product that caters to the community for cannabis’ everyday user.
“That’s really what the mission was because ultimately, when I started Bud’s Goods here in Worcester, I looked around my neighborhood, and I thought to myself, ‘How could I open a store that wasn’t affordable for my neighbors to shop at?’ ” he said.
Creating legal, affordable market
Although cannabis is fully legal in Massachusetts, most cannabis sold at retailers is expensive, especially after adding the 20% tax, Mazin said.
To him, a legal market and an “affordable” legal market are two very different things, with the latter removing a barrier for cannabis users who were choosing to obtain it illegally because they were priced out of the legal market.
“By creating an affordable legal product offering, you transition people from doing things that are illegal, that would get them in trouble and that usually tends to be people who are less financially stable or financially fortunate,” he said.
Challenges for cannabis businesses
From a customer standpoint, it’s about price.
But from a business standpoint, the challenges include the high taxes and government fees that make it nearly impossible to run a profitable business in today’s cannabis world, Mazin said.
The reason why consumers still buy in illegal markets is because of the price — a product can cost 40% to 50% less when purchased illegally, according to Mazin.
Mazin said his business makes very little profit on product, but his overall mission is to transition the entire cannabis market.
“Although we make a little bit of money, (even) if it’s not very profitable, it is getting our name out,” he said. “It is driving customer awareness. It is converting ‘legacy’ to legal.”
Supply vs. demand
Another issue that was driving up the price for the legal market in Massachusetts, Mazin said, was demand was much higher than supply.
But he said he is seeing prices start to drop because supply is meeting demand, and for the next four to six months, he said he expects that supply will exceed demand as more cultivators begin to come online and more operations begin to produce higher volumes of product.
“We’ve already seen a huge reduction. I’ll say almost 50% reduction in product costs, such as edibles and vapes,” he said. “That will continue to come down in price especially because of the outdoor cultivations that are going to harvest this fall.”
Building an East Coast brand
For himself, Mazin is hoping to build an East Coast brand that resonates with customers all across the country.
“I always believed in cannabis there would be New England brands that would emerge,” he said. “With cannabis, you always hear about West Coast brands, but brands are starting to come out of New England and I am really proud we’re one of them.”
Recently, Bud’s Goods won NECANN’s Best New England Cannabis Company 2021 at the third annual New England Canna Community Awards in Boston. The event is the only cannabis awards focused on the New England cannabis community, according to Marc Shepard, NECANN’s founder and president, and is the largest cannabis event in New England featuring 150 companies and attracting thousands of visitors.
“I feel we can always get better and grow better,” Mazin said. “The awards were not a ‘pay-to-play’ vote and we won over 6,000 votes. It was the voice of the people choosing. Winning best cannabis company at that event is like winning best picture at the Oscars. The whole company was identified as being the best in New England.”
Nationally, Mazin would like to see fairness for consumers and legalization of the cannabis industry.
“I would like to see legalization, so that cannabis companies can be treated fairly, taxed fairly and have access to all the normal things that businesses typically get, which is not the case at the moment,” Mazin said. “And that will only happen upon legalization.”