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As Medical Marijuana Comes to Missouri, the ‘Green Rush’ Is On

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Jamila Owens-Todd’s Green Care Inc. is applying for a dispensary license. - COURTESY OF JAMILA OWENS-TODD
  • COURTESY OF JAMILA OWENS-TODD
  • Jamila Owens-Todd’s Green Care Inc. is applying for a dispensary license.

Nearly 50 years ago, cannabis was a reliable battlefront in America's steadily intensifying culture wars between liberals and conservatives, along with gun rights, abortion, gay marriage and immigration. Then, about twenty years ago, to paraphrase Hemingway, the public's acceptance of cannabis occurred gradually, then suddenly.

Missouri is the 33rd state in the U.S. to legalize medical cannabis, and if other states are any guide, it won't be many years before Missouri legalizes "adult use" or recreational cannabis.

It has already been effectively decriminalized in both St. Louis city and St. Louis County. In the city, in 2013, aldermen voted 22-3 to allow police to cite individuals instead of arresting them for small amounts of cannabis. Cited persons would be processed in municipal court, not state court, and ordered to pay a fine between $100 and $500. The aldermen further reduced penalties in February 2018, voting unanimously to set a $25 fine for possession of 35 grams — which is a tad more than an ounce — or less.

And last January, St. Louis County effectively ended criminal prosecution of cannabis possession of amounts less than 100 grams, or about 3.5 ounces, unless "evidence suggests the sale/distribution of marijuana," according to a memo drafted by St. Louis Prosecutor Wesley Bell.

Many legal and political experts predict it won't be long before Congress strikes down the federal law prohibiting cannabis use and possession, turning the matter over to individual states — which would be a virtual replay of how Congress ended alcohol prohibition in 1933.

Mays, the CEO of REAL Cannabis, said he believes the legalization of recreational cannabis is almost a foregone conclusion.

"Absolutely. I don't know if federal laws will evolve and change before our state laws do," Mays says, "but it's clear that this is an evolution towards the overall legalization of cannabis in this country."

The economic pressure on Missouri to legalize recreational cannabis certainly will be intense.

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law last month a measure legalizing recreational cannabis. The law is set to take effect January 1, 2020, and would make it legal for people who are 21 or older to possess an ounce of flower weed. At that point, Illinois will become the eleventh state to legalize recreational marijuana use and sales.

Even if Missouri only participates in the medical marijuana market for now, that still means plenty of money-making opportunity — with more to come if the state goes all the way.

Consider the case of Oregon. Sure, it's a politically liberal state on the West Coast, but in many ways it is similar to Missouri. Oregon's population is smaller than Missouri's (4.26 million versus 6.14 million), but otherwise the two states are strikingly similar, in that they both feature a few major metro areas in what are otherwise rural states heavily dependent on agriculture.

By the end of 2019, Oregon's legal cannabis industry expects direct sales to approach $438 million, with $270 million in medical marijuana and $168 million in recreational weed, according to New Frontier.

Overall, Oregon's cannabis industry has made an economic impact of more than $1.2 billion, creating more than 12,500 jobs with an average wage of $12.13 an hour, according to a 2017 report by economist Beau Whitney. (Those job numbers apply to plant-touching companies, such as dispensaries and grow centers, and do not include tangential services, such as attorneys or security services.)

Because medical marijuana in Missouri will be heavily regulated, it's the state DHSS that will determine the winners and losers. It will use a points system to determine which applicants win the first coveted licenses to grow, process and sell medical cannabis.

In evaluating applicants, DHSS has focused on two priorities: avoiding the perception of preferential treatment for applicants, and making sure the facilities are spread around geographically to ensure fair competition and patient access.

Applications will be judged anonymously, in a redacted format by a third-party company. "So no one will know who the applicants are, and the judges are out of state and don't know any of us anyway," notes local cannabis entrepreneur Mitch Meyers.

After an initial scoring, applicants who propose a facility in a ZIP code with an employment rate of 85 to 89.9 percent will receive bonus points. If the ZIP code's employment rate is below 85 percent, the bonus is bigger.

DHSS may award another bonus to a dispensary that is at least 25 miles (in a straight line) from any other proposed or existing dispensary.

The contractor performing the judging will rank all the applicants in order from highest to lowest score, then submit them to DHSS, which will unseal their names and make sure the top scorers have everything they need to be awarded the licenses.

"There was a big effort by DHSS to influence where these operations will be placed, as they gave bonus points for locating in areas where unemployment is highest," Meyers writes in an email. "They are looking to rebuild communities and provide work in distressed areas. That had people rethinking their real estate choices."

Would-be marijuana entrepreneurs flocked to CannaConStL in St. Louis this April. - ZIA NIZAMI
  • ZIA NIZAMI
  • Would-be marijuana entrepreneurs flocked to CannaConStL in St. Louis this April.

Mitch Meyers made her name in St. Louis as a trail-blazing marketing guru for beer titan Anheuser-Busch. Spuds MacKenzie, the adorable fictional dog used to sell Bud Light in the 1980s, was her brainchild, among other feats.

Meyers later scored other successes after striking out to start a marketing company of her own, but sold it to a bigger firm to take a break from the business world. She moved to Colorado, where she saw for herself how effective medical cannabis can be for certain medical conditions, such as childhood epilepsy. She became not just a believer, but an evangelist.

A few years ago Meyers took a chance by investing in cannabis operations in both Illinois and Missouri. Her company, Earth City-based BeLeaf, won one of the first Missouri licenses to make and sell CDB oil to treat seizure disorders. (CBD, which won't get you high, is also derived from the hemp plant. Its production won limited approval in 2014 from the Missouri legislature.) Today, after toughing out lean times in Missouri, Meyers now helms a partnership team seeking to apply for medical cannabis licenses covering cultivation, production and dispensaries in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Meyers has seen firsthand the difficulties of growing cannabis, and growing a business. She downplays reports that Missouri could have an oversupply of medical cannabis when the first production centers and dispensaries open next year.

"If everybody got up and open, and they were a very capable grower and they were maxing out the amount we could grow under the law, I would tell you we would have way too much product," Meyers says. "But I know from experience that won't happen. Some people will get a license, but they won't get their funding to open quickly. I know a lot of people will start much smaller than the total amount you're allowed to grow. Because none of us wants to spend $15 million and find out the demand isn't there yet."

Meyers believes a major factor in the public demand for medical cannabis is the human toll caused by America's opiate epidemic, which was responsible for the bulk of the 70,000 drug overdose deaths last year in America.

Cannabis has been shown to be an effective alternative as a painkiller. A 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that states that legalized medical cannabis showed a 25 percent drop in opiate-related deaths compared to states that had not.

"How many of us know someone who was touched by this issue?" Meyers says. "They're trying to get off these opiates, and cannabis is one of the tools that should be in the tool box."

It's not just marijuana plants that will be blossoming in increased numbers in Missouri. Last year's federal farm bill made it legal to grow agricultural grade hemp, a form of the cannabis plant that contains little to no THC, the psychoactive component that gives marijuana its buzz.

This means hemp can be grown nationwide and on an industrial scale. That's good news for Missouri farmers, who 150 years ago reigned as world leaders in hemp production. They can grow a plant that today around the world is being used to make plastic, textiles, fuel and other basic commodities. They can also start seriously competing against China, which dominates the global hemp market.

Jamila Owens-Todd came to cannabis in an indirect way. She started out as a research chemist who worked for pharmaceutical companies testing, among other things, synthetic opiates.

But Owens-Todd always pursued an intense side interest in plant-based medicine, which led her to quit the pharmaceutical industry to become a naturopathic physician practicing in Webster Groves.

"Naturopathic medicine is all about plant medicine," she says. "For me, it is about understanding that health care is all-encompassing and not just relying upon pharmaceuticals.¨

Owens-Todd is one of the partners in Green Care Inc., an investment team seeking to open four dispensaries: one in south city, one in St. Louis County, one in the Kansas City area and one around the Lake of the Ozarks.

As a chemist, Owens-Todd knew that synthetic medicines can do a lot of good and even save lives. But there is a lot they can't do, and often their side effects hurt patients.

For Owens-Todd, this realization hit home when she began treating children suffering from epilepsy and other seizure disorders. Conventional drugs were not working and caused harmful side effects. As a result, desperate parents were risking going to prison by going to Colorado to bring back medical cannabis, which actually worked to stop the seizures, Owens-Todd recalls.

After conducting her own independent research, Owens-Todd became convinced that cannabis is effective not only for treating seizures, but for many other medical problems.

"Once I saw that, it kind of flipped the switch on for me, that this is viable medicine," she says. "So I really have to consider that in my practice and how I can support families on this and see that it is viable medicine."

Every day, Owens-Todd says she sees people who receive conventional medical diagnoses that provide only few options, such as taking a pill.

"When you use plants as an option, you see there are hundreds of options in many cases," she says. "Opening up options with plants opens up options physically with healing. It does create this bigger stage for health wellness and longevity.

What's more, this information is available to everyone, she says.

"A patient goes to a dispensary to find ways of healing themselves with cannabis. So now they have to find which strains are best for me," she says. "That takes ownership. Which method of delivery do you want? This information is available to everyone. It's not going to be limited by your ZIP code or socio-economic status. It's going to be available to everyone.

Green Care vows to price its cannabis low enough to make it affordable to everyone living in the neighborhoods it's serving, Owens-Todd says.

"We will not eliminate anyone from our dispensary," she says. "That's a key component of why we do this. Is that there is going to be something for everyone. And we're going to make sure we get it in your hands the best way possible."