The medical cannabis industry continues to grow in Puerto Rico despite the challenges it faces
Lirio Rivera, 62, and a five-year-old grandmother, has been a classic housewife and devout Catholic throughout her life. He has never smoked cigarettes, he has never drunk alcohol and, above all, he never thought of taking marijuana. Since I was a child I saw with very bad eyes those who smoked “mafú”, the word used in Puerto Rico to refer to marijuana. However, without warning, one day he began to experience chronic pain and fatigue of fibromyalgia.
After trying different conventional treatments without success, he finally gave up and decided to try the medical marijuana he had heard so much about. He started taking CBD capsules and his situation improved dramatically. The grandmother who had thought so badly throughout her life of marijuana, now says that if people knew the healing power of cannabis, they would all cultivate it in their yards.
Since the legalization of medical marijuana on the island, the plant is changing the economic and sanitary situation of Puerto Rico. Thousands of citizens like Lirio Rivera consume it, grow it or sell it.
Millions of dollars are being used to finance marijuana farms and dispensaries that sell all kinds of products, from massage oils flavored with ylang-ylang and marijuana to edibles with tropical flavor, as well as the capsules used by people like Lirio Rivera. This economic miracle is happening despite the operational, banking and regulatory challenges facing the island.
It all started in 2015, when a year before leaving office, the then governor, Alejandro Padilla, legalized medical marijuana by executive order after the issue was widely debated. Finally, two years later, the legislature voted it as law and the new governor Ricardo Rosselló signed the regulations that regulate its use.
According to the medical marijuana web of Puerto Rico, about 72,000 patients are part of the program directed by the Department of Health. The goal of the website is to register 100,000 new patients by the end of this year.
And the reality is that medical cannabis has been an economic boom for the island. According to the government, among companies, doctors, patients and workers who have paid the cost of cards, permits and licenses to consume, sell, grow, transport, prescribe and manufacture, have generated $ 11.5 million to the economy of the island. Money that is of special importance since Puerto Rico is still trying to recover economically from the ruin produced by hurricanes Irma and María in 2017, to which we must add a terrible public deficit of 72 billion dollars.
Antonio Quilichini, executive director of the Board of Regulation and Program of Cannabis of Puerto Rico and commissioner of marijuana of the island cannot hide his enthusiasm when speaking of the subject and says that it is a new industry with many opportunities.
Cannabis has been an economic boom for the island. According to the government, among companies, doctors, patients and workers who have paid the cost of cards, permits and licenses to consume, sell, grow, transport, prescribe and manufacture, have generated $ 11.5 million to the economy of the island. Money that is of special importance since Puerto Rico is still trying to recover economically from the ruin produced by hurricanes Irma and María in 2017, to which we must add a terrible public deficit of 72 billion dollars.
The government has granted 77 dispensary licenses and 40 have already been opened throughout the island. Government and industry advocates estimate that the medical cannabis program could generate 100 million in new tax revenue by 2020 and also create 20,000 new jobs.
As the industry has skyrocketed in the past two years, some analysts believe that expectations depend on the enrollment of many newer patients. If so, the island will generate income from sales taxes and an increase in the number of growers and sellers. Puerto Rico is expected to get a solid consumer base soon.
Supporters of medical marijuana insist that the growth of the industry is a fact. More and more patients are registered. The island has gone from 20 patients a week to 1500. Online registration through a new digital platform has greatly facilitated access and patients are delighted with alternative forms of healing.
The Grammy-winning singer and songwriter, Draco Rosa, who wrote with Ricky Martin the musical theme “Livin ‘La Vida Loca”, is an enthusiastic consumer of medical marijuana. Draco is one of the many celebrities who invest in the medical cannabis industry.
Draco says that marijuana works very well and that it is a very good business. He knows it well since he has survived cancer twice, in 2011 and 2013. He believes in medical cannabis for having helped him a lot during his treatments.
Such is his enthusiasm and faith in cannabis that his experience inspired him to create his own line of medical marijuana with the highest possible concentration of CBD. For this, he partnered with NextGen Pharma, the leading medical marijuana company in Puerto Rico.
Draco says that he approached the lines of medicinal cannabis with the same enthusiasm with which he creates music: with love and attention to quality and details. Last December, he launched his first product called Monte Sagrado, which is also the name of his new album, and is intended for cancer patients and people suffering from chronic pain. In February, the married father and two children created a second medicinal line, Mad Love, for patients suffering from anxiety and stress. Products include groceries and oils.
Other celebrities, including musician Julian Marley, son of Bob Marley, sell CBD products on the island. NextGen Pharma, the leading cannabis company in Puerto Rico, has recently invested $ 6 million in the construction of new offices, hired more employees and is increasing production.
Carmen Serrano, CEO of NextGen Pharma, says that the people of Puerto Rico are looking for alternatives to conventional chemical medications that have side effects. This company also founded Bwell, a line of dispensaries. To date, they have opened four establishments in tourist areas such as Old San Juan, Condado and Ocean Park, as well as in Guaynabo, and are prepared to open six more by the end of the year.
On the other hand, Puerto Rico accepts the medical cards of American tourists from any US state where medical cannabis is legal, one more reason to increase tourism on the island.
As always, the biggest problem is that medical marijuana is still classified as an illegal substance at the federal level, so banks cannot work with the industry. Indeed, banking is the biggest challenge, according to Julian Londoño, vice president of the Puerto Rico Medical Cannabis Association and managing partner of NextGen Pharma.
Tu Coop, the only local credit cooperative that provides financial services to the medical marijuana industry on the island, had to cancel accounts last January after the Cooperative Bank, a larger bank that handled the transactions of The credit union no longer accepted their checks.
Fortunately, the problem was solved after Tu Coop took the Cooperative Bank to court and a judge ordered the largest bank to restore the credit union accounts.
But even so, Londoño says that one of the biggest problems facing the industry is that medical marijuana is a business forced to work in cash, which in the end is very expensive. In addition, it is a big problem to have to count, pack and transport an amount of $ 40,000 in cash from the monthly taxes.
It is hoped that legislators in the House will vote on the SAFE Banking Law, which would allow Puerto Rico medical cannabis legal companies to work with federal banking institutions and resolve clashes between federal and local governments that are trying regulate legal marijuana.
In addition to problems with banks, it is necessary to inform the public and educate the police about medical marijuana.
Quilichini, the island’s marijuana minister, has the same opinion and says lawmakers are in constant discussion with police and district attorneys. There is still much confusion with what is legal and what is not. Some patients like Rivera say that although medical marijuana has benefited them a lot, prices are too high.
20 CBD capsules cost between 60 and 80 dollars, which insurance does not cover. Medicinal cards cost $ 25 each, but considering doctor visits to get a prescription, the average cost can go up to $ 80 or $ 100. The dispensaries sell everything from cakes that cost $ 10 to capsules of $ 80.
Supporters of medical cannabis promote the growing number of patients, producers and dispensaries in the industry. Jason Ortiz, vice president of the Connecticut-based Minority Cannabis Business Association, says Puerto Rico has the ingenuity, experience, climate and infrastructure to make this industry thrive. The group has been marked as an achievement to get more minorities to be part of the growing cannabis industry.
There is still a certain social stigma towards marijuana. Rivera says he is still embarrassed to tell some of his friends that he uses medical marijuana. And it is hard to believe that marijuana is what has finally helped him live a more normal life.