Money and Mary Jane

A local look inside medical marijuana, the real cash crop of the 21st Century

The demand for medical marijuana, specifically since COVID-19 has been massive. Perhaps that’s why so many are trying to get their foot in the game. But specifically here in Pennsylvania, that path can be harder than most. | Image provided

“I still get laughed at because I smoke Reggie,” says West Philly native Maurice (Reese) Williams. “Everyone wants to smoke loud and all the exotic crap. I just don’t trust it, it doesn’t taste like regular weed.” 

Reese is in his 40s, he has been smoking marijuana for upward of two decades. “I’m not a medical marijuana dude because I don’t understand how it’s grown and made. When I hear ‘medical,’ I think chemicals.”

Veteran weed smokers such as Reese have watched cannabis transform from a vilified narcotic to an “essential” good. On more than one occasion, Reese had been detained for possession of less than three grams of marijuana in West Philly. Now Cannabis dispensaries are opening throughout the very city that arrested him.

In 2018, medical marijuana stores began to open in Philadelphia, city leadership relaxed marijuana possession laws and arrests for weed possession dropped from 3,773 in 2013 to 507 in 2018, according to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 2020, there are fewer than a dozen marijuana shops in Philadelphia.

The names of each of the Philadelphia dispensaries are vaguely medical, Vertilife, Herbology,

Cure Pennsylvania, and Restore Integrative Wellness to name a few. Medical marijuana dispensaries are a fusion of the medical and consumer world with just a dab of weed culture.

“There’s a lot of jargon. We’re not supposed to say weed, we’re supposed to say cannabis or marijuana or flower,” says Meghan, a lead patient consultant at Herbology. “I have a mix of patients who, if Pennsylvania was recreational, probably 50 percent of our patients would be going to rec dispensaries over medical, even though they qualify for medical cards.”

Acquiring your medical card in Pennsylvania can be done in four seemingly simple steps:

1. Register for the medical marijuana program through the Medical Marijuana Registry.

2. Have a physician certify that you suffer from one of the medical conditions that qualify for medical marijuana. Over the years, the list of ailments for acquiring a medical marijuana license has expanded. There are more than 20 medical conditions that qualify someone for a medical card, ranging from mild anxiety disorders to terminal illness. After your qualifying condition is confirmed, the doctor will submit his or her certifications directly into the Medical Marijuana Registry. Patients will receive an email confirmation with the next steps.

3. Pay for a medical marijuana ID card and await its arrival. A medical marijuana card costs $50, but people on Medicare, PACE, CHIP, SNAP and WIC may be eligible for fee reductions.

4. Once the card is received, you can get medical marijuana from an approved dispensary in Pennsylvania.

Getting into the medical marijuana business is a pricy startup not many can afford. Some believe it’s designed that way for a reason, specifically here in Pennsylvania. | Image provided.

The primary hurdle in this process is access to health care. Some 12 percent of Philadelphians are uninsured, which is 5 percent more than the national average, according to government reports. Reese explained, “I haven’t had a consistent doctor since I was a kid” after expressing that he “wouldn’t know how” to get a medical marijuana license.

Without insurance, people like Reese don’t have a primary care physician or frequent access to doctors. Without a primary physician or consistent check-ups, people who are uninsured do not have extensive health records and tend to be less comfortable in a doctors office. Uninsured Americans primarily visit a doctor when an emergency takes place, not for check-ups or because they want their weed card.

Whether or not Americans are insured, one-third of Americans admit to forgoing medical care specifically due to concern over cost. The stench of the American health care system lingers in the world of medical marijuana.

The process gets significantly more difficult if you are looking to obtain a license to grow marijuana. The non-refundable application alone costs, at the very least, $5,000. If that application is accepted, it then costs at least $20,000 to obtain a permit. 

That alone is not enough. Following the acceptance of that application, prospective marijuana businesses must prove that they have access to the capital necessary to succeed, meaning equipment, finances and a business plan must be present.

After paying a minimum of $25,000, a potential marijuana company must begin contacting various bureaucracies. The Pennsylvania Department of Health, the Medical Marijuana Bureau, Department of Agriculture, Department of Labor and the Environmental Protection Agency are just a few. 

Even if all is cohesive up to this point, there is still a final “permission to operate” that must be approved.

The state’s cannabis policy is reflective of what’s happening nationally, but worse when it comes to diversity. Black and Brown people interested in owning are restricted by the limit of permits, and the recent mergers and acquisitions by MSOs (multi-state operators) here.” 

– Cherron Perry-Thomas, co-founder of the Diasporic Alliance for Cannabis Opportunities

These high costs, difficult bureaucracies and extensive need for permits stunts the chances of small businesses to join the medical marijuana game.

For example, Herbology, located on Passyunk Avenue is owned by Grassroots Cannabis, which is owned by a company called Curaleaf, which is owned by a Russian-American insurance executive and billionaire named Boris Jordan. Entrance into Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana industry is guarded by a thick wall of bureaucratic tape that can only be cut with very expensive scissors.

Cherron Perry-Thomas, co-founder of the Diasporic Alliance for Cannabis Opportunities, said “I know several Black and diverse teams who were denied permits, and I know Black people who were added to permits, only to be booted once the operation was running.

“There are people who moved back to the area to work in the industry after working in other states. Once they realized the program’s diversity was a joke, they returned back to the states where they worked before. We need diversity oversight and social equity programming.

The state’s cannabis policy is reflective of what’s happening nationally, but worse when it comes to diversity. Black and Brown people interested in owning are restricted by the limit of permits, and the recent mergers and acquisitions by MSOs (multi-state operators) here.” 

DACO’s mission is to promote awareness about cannabis in Black and Brown communities. From state to state, the barriers of entry into the medical marijuana industry vary but remain extremely difficult. 

“Ownership for black and brown people is less than 2 percent in the space,” said Mary Pryor, owner of Tricolla Farms in New York. Mary runs the only all-female-owned vertically integrated hemp operation in the Northeast: Tonic CBD and Bardo Labs.

“I’m the only chief marketing officer that’s Black in the hemp operation, it’s 2020. So for everything that this industry is, it’s very racist, it’s very sexist. But also, it’s trying to create something everyone needs access to. I wouldn’t be alive without it,” Pryor, a medical marijuana patient herself, explains.

The disparity when it comes to race and marijuana are centuries old from everything involving growth and distribution to criminal justice tactics. | Image provided

Race and marijuana are forever intertwined between the literal rebranding of cannabis to “marijuana” for the purpose of racial demonization to the disproportionate incarceration of Black people for marijuana use. In Philadelphia and its four surrounding suburbs, Black people are five times more likely to get arrested for marijuana possession than white people, according to the ACLU. There are no exclusively Black-owned state-regulated dispensaries or growers.

Along with the sweeping racial issues in the medical marijuana field, there are more banal complaints. Gordon, an IT and compliance specialist for the Agri-Kind grow house in Chester, said, “Our software system that we’re mandated to use, MJ Freeway, everyone in the state of

Pennsylvania is required to use it. The biggest difficulty in my job is dealing with this platform, it’s filled with errors and bugs.” 

MJ Freeway is a sales management platform used at every stage of marijuana grown in the state. It was granted a $10 million contract in 2017, according to Marijuana Business Daily. MJ Freeway is owned by Akerna, a publicly-traded company on the NASDAQ. 

“MJ Freeway tracks all of the products in the state that are being sold, so there are no diversions or discrepancies,” said Meghan of Herbology. 

This software follows the cannabis plant from growth, to dispensary, to sale. The weed is tracked, traced, and accounted for through MJ Freeway.

Huge contracts, like the one awarded to Akerna, along with the labor of both Meghan and Gordon, make medical marijuana significantly more expensive than illegal marijuana. At dispensaries in Philadelphia, a quarter ounce (seven grams) of marijuana costs $80 to $115 on average. However, from a drug dealer, that same amount of weed would cost between $40 to $60 in Philadelphia.

It’s easy to get swept up in Snoop Dogg, Cheech and Chong, and smoking bongs when you’re talking about weed. In reality, cannabis is the cash crop of the 21st century, and right now people with money and power are scrambling for control of it. People like Reese hesitate to hop on the medical marijuana train, while Mary Pryor fights to make it a better place. 

We are seeing the birth of a new industry, the child of Big Tobacco and Big Pharma is growing approaching adolescence. Big Weed is on the way.