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Georgia’s new medical marijuana program stalls 6 months after law signed

Six months after Gov. Brian Kemp signed a law allowing companies to grow and sell medical marijuana in Georgia for the first time, the program remains stalled because he and other top politicians still haven’t appointed members of a commission to oversee the expansion. 

Aides to Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston haven’t said why there’s no members yet for the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission. But until they do, the expansion is effectively sidelined. 

The legislation, House Bill 324, gave the seven-member commission vast oversight over the state’s medical marijuana operation, including picking which businesses can grow the plant and developing the licensing requirements that retailers must meet to sell it.

It’s a cornerstone of legislation that creates a new but limited marijuana industry in Georgia. The legislation was celebrated as a milestone for patients who were previously allowed to use the drug — but had to violate state and federal laws to purchase it.

One potential cause for the lag time is that the commission is essentially a startup, unlike other boards and agencies with built-in procedures and existing members. State officials say they’ve been inundated with applications — more than 50 candidates have surfaced for the spots.

The law also sets strict requirements for appointments, including a rule that commission members must not have any ownership stake or other financial interest in a cannabis oil firm during their term — and five years after it ends.

Still, the delay is a setback for patients and their families who celebrated the law’s passage with hopes it would provide much-needed treatment for severe seizures, terminal cancers, Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses. 

“It’s extremely frustrating for medically fragile patients to finally get a bill passed that allows the distribution of medical cannabis oil, and then still be waiting on Governor Kemp to establish the commission,” said Blaine Cloud, whose daughter Alaina suffers from a severe form of epilepsy that could be treated by the drug. 

“Registered patients and many others continue to suffer every day – and will continue to suffer since it will take time to get companies licensed once the commission is finally established.”

Slow rollout in marijuana sales costs Maine revenue and jobs

From legalization to legal sales, Maine is inching toward the slowest adult-use marijuana rollout in the U.S., with economists saying the three-year wait for stores to open will have cost Maine more than $82 million in taxes and 6,100 industry jobs.

The delay has caused some investors and industry experts to take their dollars and skills to other states, consultants say. Many of those who remain behind, committed to Maine, are spending cash they haven’t got to be ready for a market launch that is two years longer than average.

David Carr and Ray Payne have spent at least $750,000 waiting for that green light. That is what it took to lock down and hold on to the properties and personnel they will need to apply for the licenses required to open a recreational grow, manufacturing lab and retail store in Portland.

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Ray Payne, left, and David Carr of Coast 2 Coast Extracts stand in their empty cultivation warehouse in Portland. The partners have been making lease, insurance and security system payments on the space they hope to use to grow marijuana once the adult-use recreational industry is cleared to launch. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

And because this is cannabis, a federally illegal industry without access to traditional banking, Carr and Payne have had to turn to private investors, incurring high-interest debt and handing over equity in the company, to float the business until they can even hope to start making money.

“We are going deeper into debt every day,” Carr said. “We are pretty lucky. We have investors who really understand the cannabis space. They understand the risks, the delays. A lot of people don’t. But it’s debt we shouldn’t have, you know? We’ll be paying for this delay long after we open.”

Maine voted to legalize adult-use marijuana in November 2016. After legislative rewrites, gubernatorial vetoes, and contractual snafus, state regulators are now saying Maine will record its first adult-use sales on March 15, or 1,223 days after voters narrowly approved full-scale legalization at the polls.

The seven states that legalized recreational marijuana use and sales before or at the same time as Maine – Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, California, Massachusetts and Nevada – required an average of 497 days from legalization to record their first sales.

Even Michigan and Illinois, which legalized adult-use marijuana in 2018 and 2019, predict their markets will launch before Maine’s. Illinois adopted its legalization law last July and is predicting stores will open on Jan. 1, 2020, making its 160-day rollout the fastest in U.S. history.

AN ECONOMIC PLAYER

Maine’s recreational cannabis market will top $158 million in sales its first year and almost $252 million in its second, according to economist Beau Whitney at New Frontier Data, a national marijuana research company that has studied legal and illegal market development in other legalized states.

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These growth estimates are based on state population, marijuana consumption, medical marijuana sales and tourism trends, as well as the similarity of Maine’s proposed regulatory model with other markets. It assumes the black market will continue to serve 25 percent of total demand.

Using a conservative multiplier, where $1 spent is worth $2 to the economy, Whitney projects the adult-use market would have pumped more than $800 million into the Maine economy if the state could have pulled off an average rollout of 497 days instead of its 1,223 crawl to its first sale.

Based on Whitney’s projections, which have proven accurate in other markets, and the state’s tax rate of 20 percent, Maine could have made $82 million in marijuana taxes over those two extra years. That does not include other state taxes that would be collected, like payroll or income taxes.

Based on its projected size, New Frontier estimates Maine’s adult-use market will create 3,967 jobs in its debut year and 6,288 jobs in its second. These are plant-touching jobs only, like growers, chemists and retail clerks. The figures don’t include new indirect jobs, like accountants, security or human resources.

The average wage in the cannabis industry is about $17.50 an hour, or $36,400 a year, but that includes management positions and highly technical jobs requiring advanced degrees, like chemists. Most jobs in cannabis are relatively unskilled positions averaging between $12.50 and $15 an hour.

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During the two years the adult-use market could have been generating profits and creating jobs, Maine’s medical marijuana industry is likely to have taken a hit, however, losing 12 percent of its sales and about 69 jobs, according to Whitney’s estimates. Overall, however, that would still be a win in terms of dollars.

But faster does not always mean better, especially when it comes to marijuana, said Scott Gagnon, head of AdCare Educational Institute of Maine, director of the New England Prevention Technology Transfer Center and member of Maine’s soon-to-convene Marijuana Advisory Commission.

“Never a bad thing to not be in a rush to add a new commercial industry that sells addictive substances,” Gagnon said. “Rush to commercialization hurt states like Colorado and Washington, as it led to issues with youth use, impaired driving and youth access to potent marijuana edibles.”

He would have liked to see the advisory commission begin to meet sooner – it was created in 2018 when state lawmakers overrode Gov. Paul LePage’s legalization veto, but is meeting for the first time just this week – but is hopeful it still has the time to take steps to mitigate these public health issues.

“Now that the industry will be coming on line, I hope we will have robust and productive conversations to ensure we do everything we can to protect our youth and communities,” Gagnon said. “This must take priority over issues of profits and revenues.”

People disagree on the desirability of the delay, but most agree on the reason: former Gov. LePage.

“Maine has really been a bummer, and that bummer has a name: Paul LePage,” said Nic Easley, the CEO of 3C, a national marijuana consulting firm with clients in Maine. “You could have been the first in New England to legalize, but LePage handed all that money, all those jobs to Massachusetts.”

Easley said he knew several entrepreneurs who had considered Maine for business partnerships and investments and opted instead for Massachusetts, a larger state that legalized at the same time as Maine but went live in 2018. Some may return to Maine when sales start, but some are gone for good, he said.

“Who knows exactly what LePage cost you?” Easley said.

RELUCTANCE IN AUGUSTA

LePage was a staunch opponent of adult-use marijuana sales. He campaigned against the referendum question, then vetoed two post-legalization bills. Even after legislators overrode his veto, his administration did nothing to begin the process of writing regulations or licensing the industry.

LePage could not be reached for comment and didn’t respond to attempts to reach him through a former spokeswoman who now works at his public policy group and a former senior political adviser who is now a Washington, D.C.-based Republican political strategist.

There’s more to it than LePage, of course. The referendum in Maine had the smallest margin of victory – 51 to 49 percent – of any state that legalized adult-use sales. And Mainers who want marijuana can get it, either from the robust medical market or a long-lived black market, so there’s been no real public outcry.

Even Maine’s cannabis community was divided over legalization – many medical marijuana growers and patients worried it would spell the end of their market – so politicians didn’t feel overwhelming pressure to deliver on a question that lacked unanimous support among marijuana consumers.

Other states that legalized marijuana with governors who opposed it at the time managed to enact adult-use sales in spite of it, with the likes of Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker and Colorado’s John Hickenlooper eventually turning the people’s will into a reality.

Although LePage never publicly said “not under my watch,” he vowed not to move ahead with adult-use sales until Maine was ready, while doing very little to make that happen. Even after lawmakers overrode his veto, LePage hired no consultants, wrote no regulations, made no staff hires.

“The difference in Maine was you had a governor who just didn’t want to do it,” said Andrew Freedman, Colorado’s former marijuana czar who is now a consultant who has advised Maine on its adult-use rules. “If you’re a governor, you can just kick the can down the road if you want. That’s what he did.”

Matt Simon, the New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said it is only natural to compare Maine and Massachusetts, two New England states that legalized cannabis on the same day. It took Masssachusetts 742 days to log its first adult-use sale, the country’s second-longest launch.

“The rollout in Massachusetts has been frustratingly slow in comparison with most of the West Coast states, but the process has certainly gone much more smoothly and quickly than in Maine,” he said. “It all comes back to Maine having a governor who persistently refused to accept the will of the people.”

According to Greg Huffaker, the director of client services at Canna Advisors who has advised marijuana clients in 40 states and countries, LePage’s anti-marijuana position outdid even former Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who tried every trick in the book to block expansion of that state’s medical cannabis program.

“Some states launch their marijuana programs at the direction of their voters and fix the problems when they come up,” Huffaker said. “Other states, like Maine and Florida, have executives in office that cite all the problems that could happen and say they want to fix them, when what they really want to do is stall.”

PLAYING CATCH-UP

That changed when LePage left office. His successor, Janet Mills, created the Office of Marijuana Policy in the Department of Administrative and Financial Services in February, just one month into her tenure, and began hiring consultants even before they had staffed the office.

The occupants of the new office don’t refer to LePage by name, but talk in terms of before and after a lot.

“I think there’s two different stories,” said Erik Gundersen, the marijuana office’s new director. “I think the ‘what’s taking so long’ is a history before the Office of Marijuana Policy. … Some work had been done, but we ended up having to backtrack on it.”

Under that scenario, Maine would roll out in just seven months, making it the fastest in the country.

Gundersen is proud of how much his office has accomplished in such a short time, and how closely it has worked with both other state agencies and the industry to develop sound state policies and regulations in record time. He hopes that brisk pace will allay any clock-watcher’s concerns.

“We understand people have been waiting a long time and there are a lot of money and small businesses that are waiting for this industry to roll out,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to make sure we do it right because we are still talking about an industry based around a federally illegal drug.”

Study suggests legal cannabis could create over 100,000 jobs in Florida

Florida voters may have the opportunity to legalize recreational marijuana at the ballot box next year, and a new study may help bolster the advocates’ case. 

The study, conducted by New Frontier Data, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank dedicated to providing empirical research on cannabis, suggests that the state could see a significant uptick in jobs over the next several years if pot is legalized. 

John Kagia, chief knowledge officer of New Frontier Data, said that if prohibition is lifted, the number of jobs in Florida related to hemp and pot could swell to 128,587 by 2025—a sevenfold increase from the nearly 17,000 cannabis jobs in the state.

Kagia, as quoted by the Miami New Times, that the types of jobs generated by the cannabis industry vary widely, including “lower-skilled labor roles such as trimmers or budtenders, [plus] higher-skilled workers like extraction tech, chemists, and other manufacturers dealing with edibles.”

The study also said that the Sunshine State could claim a 12 percent share of the entire nationwide cannabis market by 2025, which is expected to total almost $30 billion. 

Marijuana In The Sunshine State

Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a measure in 2016 that legalized medical marijuana, but a year later, the state’s Republican governor at the time, Rick Scott, signed a law prohibiting the smoking of cannabis in all forms. That changed earlier this year, when the state’s current governor, Ron DeSantis, also a Republican, signed a law overturning the ban.

“Over 70 percent of Florida voters approved medical marijuana in 2016,” DeSantis said in a statement after signing the law in March. “I thank my colleagues in the Legislature for working with me to ensure the will of the voters is upheld. Now that we have honored our duty to find a legislative solution, I have honored my commitment and filed a joint motion to dismiss the state’s appeal and to vacate the lower court decision which had held the prior law to be unconstitutional.”

Now, there’s a movement afoot to give voters the chance to go a step further and lift the prohibition on recreational use. Two separate groups of advocates are currently circulating petitions to propose a pair of similar questions on the Florida ballot next year. While both proposals would permit any Florida adult 21 or older to possess marijuana and consume it in private, only one would also permit Floridians to also grow cannabis at home.

Illicit cannabis companies find struggles, success in going legit

For many New York cannabis businesses operating in the illicit or gray market, preparing to go mainstream is essential. Some have made the move and are ready to share their wisdom. For those who haven’t, preparing during the lead up to the state’s eventual adult-use legalization could prove critical to securing a place in the one-day legal market. 

However, making the transition has its series of difficulties. 

New York State currently allows a select few options for cannabis business licenses. Ancillary businesses that don’t directly touch the plant are popular due to their ability to replicate virtually any other market without risk of violating the law. As such, these ventures often require little to no additional licensing, acting as any other legal business would. 

Companies like head shops and manufacturers are also seeing opportunity to a lesser degree. When it comes to the plant itself, though, the closest most companies can currently come to touching it is CBD. Under regulations, CBD cultivators and retailers can sell products, provided that they contain less than .3% THC. 

The only businesses allowed to touch THC-rich plants are the few vertically-integrated license holders granted by the state. New York officials began its program granting five licenses to companies, giving them the opportunity to open four dispensaries and one manufacturing location across New York. 

As program interest grew, parts of the state further suffered from lack of access to a dispensary. The state granted five additional licenses under the same four-dispensary, one manufacturing location arrangement to meet the demand. 

A limit on licenses is just one hurdle. The history of high entry costs have been a constant concern as well.

Estimates suggest that the price of entry for vertically-integrated licenses were between $15 and $30 million, according to various sources. The high price point to enter the space, if it were to open again any time, includes various fees and start-up costs. According to the state Department of Health, fees include a non-refundable $10,000 application, a $200,000 refundable payment to the state and the ability to prove a company can open the five mentioned locations. 

With limited access and a significant financial hurdle to clear, many deemed the venture impossible. Under adult-use legalization, however, access could expand greatly. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s so far failed adult-use legalization bill came at the expense of many promising outcomes. Criminal justice reform took the spotlight, and deservedly so. The shortcoming to pass the bill and overhaul a broken justice system, which includes scores of non-violent cannabis offenders, sparked the state to pass decriminalization measures as a momentary plan B for New Yorkers. 

If passed, the Governor’s Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act would further address criminal justice efforts in the state, emphasizing penal justice and criminal procedure reform. 

Under the bill, entrepreneurs would also see expanded opportunities. The proposed Cuomo bill calls for licenses allowing cultivation, processing, distribution and sales of cannabis to people 21 or older. Licenses would expand to resemble those of other legalized adult-use markets. 

A plethora of business opportunities eventually will exist for companies, such as cannabis transportation, co-operatives, processing and just about every other venture imaginable. One area not likely to have been included in the bill was social consumption, an ongoing topic of discussion in cannabis as of late. 

Some entrepreneurs have already been able to pivot their illicit efforts into the mainstream. Often, this includes growers and cultivators. Adrian Edwards is the founder of Life Gardening Tools, a CBD venture that also focuses on urban gardening and bee advocacy. The company supports ethical beekeeping in Brooklyn, Staten Island and New Jersey in addition to selling an array of products from CBD oil, edibles, accessories and pre-rolled options it calls Hempette’s. 

The now legal CBD grower, extractor and retailer has over a decade of experience in the grey/white market. Most of his time has been in the illicit market, despite always seeking to enter the legal side of the market. 

Edwards, a black man, said he spent much of his time in the illicit market, often referred to as the black market, positing the inherent inequality of the growing legal, or white, market. To date, the industry continues to be largely caucasian-owned after decades of disproportionate policing during the drug war. Such policing continues to be an issue across the country. 

In the summer of 2018, Edwards saw a white-owned hemp store in the city. The revelation inspired him to go legal himself. “I realized if I didn’t get in now, then there was going to nothing but white-owned hemp and THC dispensaries while black people are still arrested and affected by the selective war on drugs,” Edwards explained.

When he wanted to make the transition, he did so with insights from leaders in the community, like Rep. Tremaine Wright, the representative for New York State Assembly District 56, representing the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn. 

Edwards attended a cannabis 101 event Rep. Wright hosted, which educated the community about CBD and its products. Rep. Wright passed on worthwhile advice to Edwards. “She told me to focus on advocacy and education in order to empower the folks who have been barred from benefiting from the cannabis industry,” said Edwards. 

He added, “Local politicians are doing their best to protect and heal their communities from the war on drugs.”

Edwards also credits Gia Morón, Executive Vice President of Women Grow, for teaching him “the importance of long-term thinking, patience, education and being an advocate.” He said Women Grow welcomed him with open arms, allowing him to be a representative for the black male community in the space. 

Going legal led Edwards to spend his time growing numerous revenue streams, including exclusive events and in-store sales. He also had to step out of his community to advance his network and funding. 

“When I first started, people in the African American community really didn’t know or care about hemp CBD. So, initially, I had to go to areas with the people who knew about CBD and had the money to pay for it.” He credits efforts like Rep. Wright’s for bridging this gap.

A year later, Edwards is fully mainstream and licensed. He considers the money, time and effort all worth it. He continues to network and market Life Gardening Tools today, and believes he has a business that can easily translate to an adult-use market if and when New York should legalize. 

He recommends others in the illicit market do the same. 

Transitioning from an illicit venture to a fully licensed one varies for businesses. Avis Bulbulyan is CEO of SIVA, a nationally cannabis consulting firm. Bulbulyan has over 12 years of experience in various cannabis sectors, including the Los Angeles’ Cannabis Task Force . He explained how market, sector, available resources and their commitment to the bigger picture all play a part. He noted a company should expect downtime during the transition. The cease in operation causes a loss in revenue. The downtime can last anywhere from a month to a year. 

“Most illicit operators can’t survive this part of the transition because of a lack of planning, short-sightedness in giving up immediate untaxed revenues for long-term growth and success,” he noted. 

He noted that New York’s current market is even more difficult due to the restriction on available licenses. “If you’re an operator in New York planning to stay in the industry, your best bet is to probably relocate to a different state.”

Bulbulyan agreed the financial hurdle is an issue, but is not the only one causing problems for possible entrepreneurs. He elaborated on what he considers a larger issue under current regulations, licensing. 

“What makes the state difficult is the nature of the licensing process, and the approach regulators take. New York has an extremely restrictive program with limited licenses issued. Being the best grower in the state would have nothing to do with securing a license.”

With scores of hurdles affecting New York and other illicit American cannabis ventures, it is unknown how many will successfully transition as the new cannabis normal sets in across the country. Hopefully, their hard work and sweat equity won’t be lost in the change.

California's Cannabis Compassion is re-legalized

Free cannabis came before legal cannabis. Gifting joints or edibles to sick people who, being sick, couldn’t afford to buy — and couldn’t find relief anyway else besides someone else’s compassion — was central to the ethos of the early marijuana legalization pioneers.

And free weed for some was a boss three-dimensional chess move: busting a career waitress in her 60s known for handing out weed brownies to dying AIDS patients was, for the prohibitionist establishment and for law enforcement, almost as bad a look as busting a pot dealer with a lover dying of the same disease.

This is how medical marijuana became a thing, and providing space for sick and disabled people to come and smoke weed — weed quite often given to them, poor people on fixed incomes — is how retail cannabis stores began. And so one “funny” thing about legal, recreational commercial cannabis was that it made free cannabis illegal, or at least cost-prohibitive.

Charging tax on medicine given away for free was one reason why Dennis Peron, the aforementioned healer-dealer, opposed 2016’s Adult Use of Marijuana Act 20 years after being central to the passage of the country’s first medical-marijuana law, 1996’s Compassionate Use Act. Once legalization kicked in, giving free cannabis to the indigent and ill — a practice known as “compassion” — without paying tax on the “sale” became an outlawed act (although compassion was already on its way out in an increasingly commercial medical-marijuana industry).

Almost three years after voters approved legalization, lawmakers have re-legalized compassion. Earlier this week, among other cannabis-friendly bills passed by the state Legislature, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law the Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Act (the latter is the aforementioned brownie-provider). Sponsored by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), the bill allows cannabis providers to gift certain products away to certain people without paying California cultivation and excise taxes, which can exceed 25%.

The California cannabis industry has been clamoring for tax relief since before the first legal gram was sold. High tax burdens are seen by many as the chief driver behind high prices at legal dispensaries — where $20 grams and $75 or $80 eighths are not uncommon — and why California’s underground cannabis economy is still estimated at four times (or more) the size of its legal weed marketplace.

But the Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Act is more a throwback to those bygone outlaw days. Various cannabis compassion programs, including the Sweetleaf Collective, which still doles out cannabis to AIDS and HIV sufferers in San Francisco, and Operation EVAC, which provides the same to military veterans with PTSD and other afflictions, are now re-legalized. And, the hope goes, there’s now encouragement for more, similar programs.

“For decades, compassion programs have played a critical role in helping low income people with serious medical conditions access their medicine,” Wiener said, according to High Times. “Access to medical cannabis has allowed so many people living with HIV, cancer, PTSD, and other health conditions to survive and thrive. Taxing programs that give away free medical cannabis, and thus have no revenue, makes no sense and has caused far too many of these programs to close. SB 34 will allow compassionate care programs to survive and serve those in need. Many people will be healthier as a result of today’s action by the Governor.”

Michigan hemp farmers collect first harvest for CBD products

Farmers harvesting the first batch of legal hemp Friday said they could be looking at Michigan’s next big cash crop.

For the first time, nearly 600 farmers are harvesting legal hemp across the state. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development issued the first industrial hemp licenses to farmers earlier this year, allowing local entrepreneurs to enter the market for hemp-infused healthcare products -- promoted as a treatment for headaches, chronic pain and anxiety -- that consumers are finding everywhere from retail storefronts to shelves in Family Video stores.

Hemp is a fast-growing strain of cannabis with extremely low levels of THC, which means users can experience therapeutic benefits without getting high. The crop also has environmental benefits; it takes less water, is naturally resistant to pests and can be introduced into rotations with other cash crops like corn and soybeans to clean pollutants from the soil.

“The de-stigmatization is a big part of building this supply chain, understanding there is a lot of opportunities economically for framers, theres a lot of benefits to consumers," said Andrew Blake, co-owner of Blake’s Hard Cider and manager of the family cider mill. "There’s also probably some benefits touted out there that isn’t correct that we need to educate and understand. Getting the scientific community behind it and studies done, all of that is important as we try to build this out.

Stakeholders in Kinder Products Unlimited, a new business venture launched in partnership with Blake’s Orchard & Cider Mill, celebrated the harvest of seven acres of industrial hemp Friday in Armada. In addition to an indoor greenhouse operation, three acres were planted at a remote outdoor location removed from the orchard’s public fairgrounds to test how well the crop would fare on Michigan farmland.

Blake has plans to plant 20-50 acres of hemp next season. He partnered with childhood friend and attorney Gino Roncelli and cousin Rebecca Blake to launch the new band, which manufactures and sells CBD-infused products using Michigan-grown hemp.

Hemp is used a variety of commercial and industrial goods, but Michigan consumers are most familiar with ingestible products. Roncelli said hemp stalks and stems can be used to create various fibers and textiles, though those goods are several years away due to a lack of any regional production facilities.

“There’s probably not a great use for it at this moment,” Roncelli said. “There should be though, and someone is going to take that opportunity and use it.”

Blake represents the third generation of his family to farm in Armada since his grandfather opened a cider mill in 1946. The operation expanded significantly in the last 73 years and now includes 880-acres of farmland, a sprawling fairground packed with popular fall attractions, a tasting room and production facility for wine and hard cider products Blake launched in 2013 after returning to the family business.

Blake’s Hard Cider is the largest producer of alcoholic cider in the Midwest and 15th-largest in the U.S. From The business on track to sell 300,000 cases this year, all created in a 40,000-square-foot production facility behind its Armada tasting room.

Much of the infrastructure is already in place to begin producing CBD-infused teas, which is key to Blake’s vision for keeping the business vertically-integrated. Blake said the foray into CBD-infused products is a natural extension of his family’s self-reliant entrepreneurial spirit.

Hemp-based self-care products like oils, ointments, facial creams, bath bombs, gummies and even dog treats are already available on Kinder’s online marketplace and the farm’s retail outlets. Four flavors of canned CBD-infused teas will be available later this year, pending FDA approval.

Roncelli said the Michigan hemp market is expected to rapidly expand in the coming years and could replace soybean crops. The alternative crop could be especially for farmers who struggled with the effects of flooding and an ongoing trade fight with China which cut exports of Michigan agricultural commodities like soybeans.

One acre with 1,200 hemp plants can yield roughly $20,000 worth of crops -- a figure that blows other cash crops out of the water -- but Blake said the value will likely drop as other farmers begin planting their own crop.

“This is all very exploratory, but we’re all very excited about the opportunity,” Blake said. “As more people get comfortable and understand what it is and isn’t, we hope to be the educating piece.”

Will Kentucky Legislators finally pass a Medical Marijuana Bill next year?

A lot of the focus when it comes to news about cannabis naturally goes to the states that have legalized adult-use and medical marijuana. But it’s important to remember that more than a dozen states in the U.S. still don’t have anything approaching a decent medical cannabis program.

One of those states is my home state of Kentucky. Progress toward medical marijuana in the Bluegrass State has been sporadic and painfully slow. Earlier this year, a bill made it out of a committee in the Kentucky House of Representatives, but went no further.

So, next year activists and advocates from all over the state will descend on Frankfort to do it all again. And with things progressing more each year, there is a lot to be optimistic about going into 2020. “Our odds are improving. Citizens are speaking about cannabis more & more which in turn is making our legislators feel more comfortable,” Jaime Montalvo, founder of Kentuckians for Medical Marijuana, told The Marijuana Times.

“We’re fortunate to have a tenacious fighter like Representative Jason Nemes in the House. He and Rep Diane St. Onge worked their caucus hard to gather 53 Co-sponsors & 65 yes votes during the 2019 session. That’s over half the representatives sponsoring the bill, and over 2/3rds that say they’ll vote yes. 

“Hopefully 2020 will give legislators the courage to move medical cannabis legislation forward in Kentucky.”

Next month Kentucky voters will go to the polls to decide who will be governor. Both current Governor Matt Bevin (R) and his Democratic challenger – Andy Beshear – have expressed support for medical cannabis, although Beshear has said it’s something he would like to see on a statewide ballot.

So what it all really comes down to is the Kentucky General Assembly. If you live in the state make sure you find and contact your legislator and make sure they know you support medical marijuana. Besides the Internet, there are also mail and phone options available for contacting your state reps.

Kentucky has emerged as a nationwide leader when it comes to industrial hemp, but there is still a long way to go for hemp’s medicinal cousin in the Bluegrass. And although hemp’s very powerful champion – Kentucky Senator and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) – seems to be aware of broader cannabis issues, there is nothing to suggest he would intervene on behalf of medical marijuana patients in Kentucky and throw some clout around in the statehouse.

So it’s up to us, the people of Kentucky, to seize the momentum and get medical marijuana across the finish line in 2020.

Hemp may soon be big business for Texas farmers

Industrial hemp and it’s blossoming future in Texas is a popular topic these days, admits Joshua McGinty, AgriLife crops expert.

“There’s a lot of people who show up for and against hemp production,” said McGinty, an assistant professor and extension agronomist at Texas A&M. “But either way, they show up – and pay attention.”

At 7 a.m. Wednesday, McGinty will offer his presentation “Current Legal Status and Possible Hemp Production in Texas” at the Victoria Community Center, 2905 E. North St.

Since Texas hemp production was made legal as of Sept. 1, many South Texas farmers have wondered whether the controversial crop is also profitable.

“It tends to boost attendance wherever we go with that,” said McGinty, who has already given at least several presentations about hemp growing.

Industrial hemp is the agricultural cultivation of strains within the Cannabis sativa species, which also includes marijuana.

But unlike marijuana, hemp is defined as containing less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, a chemical that can intoxicate when ingested.

Industrial hemp, McGinty said, is used primarily in three ways.

Its fibers can be fashioned into textiles; its seeds can be used for cooking, livestock feed and other applications; and cannabidiol or CBD, a nonintoxicating chemical it produces, can be harvested and administered to treat all sorts of ailments from insomnia to anxiety to chronic pain.

While there soon may be money to be made, the market for industrial hemp is still uncertain in Texas, particularly with those centered on hemp seeds, McGinty said.

That’s in part because while hemp production may be technically legal, a lack of regulations effectively mean the plant cannot yet be cultivated in Texas, he said.

”You can’t actually grow it until the Texas Department of Agriculture puts in place the regulations around it,” McGinty said.

Those guidelines are expected to be implemented as early as spring 2020, he said.

Also still to be determined, he said, are the best methods and approaches to growing industrial hemp in South Texas.

Looking to Oklahoma as an example, McGinty said Texas agricultural officials may establish unique requirements for hemp, such as field inspections just before harvest.

With hemp and marijuana so closely related, farmers of the legal plant might accidentally harvest a plant bearing an illegal percentage of THC.

That’s why farmers should be wary of some environmental effects and the importance of picking the right hemp strain, he said.

But most of all, he said, farmers should be aware of the law, which McGinty said he will explain.

“By far the most important thing is where we are at legally. There’s a lot of people gearing up for hemp in Texas, but you need to pump the brakes a little bit until we have a set of regulations to work off of,” he said.

Medical marijuana popularity surging in Illinois as revisions in law allow greater access for patients

The medical marijuana program in Illinois is seeing record growth since changes in the law greatly expanded the program and made it easier for patients to participate.

More than 87,000 patients have qualified for the program since stores opened in November 2015 — including a spike of almost 37,000 in the fiscal year ending June 30, a 93% increase, according to state records. The surge of new patients exceeds the number signed up in any previous fiscal year, based on the latest annual report on medical cannabis by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The number of patients has continued to climb, according to the state’s monthly reports, since the state dropped requirements for patient fingerprints and criminal background checks in 2018, and added 11 new qualifying illnesses in August including common conditions such as chronic pain, migraines and arthritis.

Retail sales exceeded $22 million in September alone, almost evenly split between cannabis flower and concentrates and infused products.

The annual state report, which includes data through June, sheds further light on the growth and demographics of the medical cannabis industry.

Since becoming legal as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana in 2016, post-traumatic stress syndrome has become by far the most common condition cited by patients.

More than 8,600 patients were certified by doctors as having PTSD, followed by severe fibromyalgia, spinal cord disease, and cancer as the most common conditions.

The two most popular conditions act as umbrella terms for a variety of conditions, patients and industry experts said. PTSD serves as a catchall for mental health conditions that are not on the list of qualifying conditions, such as anxiety or depression, while fibromyalgia can act as a stand-in for chronic pain, which was not previously a qualifying condition.

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Jim Champion, of Somonauk, is an Army veteran with multiple sclerosis who led the fight for medical marijuana in Illinois. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Army veteran Jim Champion has multiple conditions that qualify for medical marijuana, including multiple sclerosis and osteoarthritis, but some days, he said, his fibromyalgia is worst of all.

“It is awful,” he said. “It sends sharp pains through my neck and shoulders. Sometimes I just want to chop off my arms it hurts so bad. It can be completely debilitating.”

The one thing that helps, he said, are medical marijuana edibles. “That fixes me right up, more than any of the pills the Veterans Administration used to give me,” he said.

A study published in June in the Journal of Clinical Medicine found that cannabis was a safe and effective treatment for more than half of the 367 patients treated.

Jim and his wife, Sandy, were instrumental advocates in getting Illinois’ medical cannabis law passed, and in expanding access to it. Jim was a member of the state’s Medical Cannabis Advisory Board until it was disbanded as part of a political deal to add post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifying condition in 2016.

People with medical conditions like fibromyalgia, a disorder known for widespread pain, fatigue and mood effects, share information, and that can lead more patients to come forward seeking help, Dr. Leslie Mendoza Temple said. Patients are required to get a doctor’s certification that they have a qualifying condition, and doctors must document any health problem cited, said Mendoza Temple, medical director of integrative medicine for NorthShore University Healthcare, who has certified some 400 patients.

“I’m getting more and more interest,” she said. “It’s bringing out people looking for relief.”

Cannabis doesn’t work for all patients, and some take too much and have bad experiences, as with any drug, she said. Now that chronic pain is a qualifying condition, she said, people may no longer need to cite fibromyalgia.

In addition to the existing medical marijuana program, the new Opioid Alternative Pilot Program, which started early this year, allows patients to obtain medical marijuana in place of prescription painkillers. It has registered an additional 2,200 new patients — most of them for joint, back or neck pain — with another 1,000 awaiting physician certification, the state report found.

The number of patients seeking to replace opioids is relatively small in part, industry members said, because physician certification of patients lasts only 90 days, compared with regular patient certifications of one to three years.

Also this year, the state began issuing provisional access registration cards to let patients and their caregivers buy medical cannabis while their applications are being processed.

In August 2019, the state added 11 new qualifying conditions, including chronic pain, migraines, anorexia nervosa and autism, but the report only covered the state’s fiscal year through June 30, so did not include those conditions.

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Patient consultant Mickey Nulf hands product to client Michelle Farina at Columbia Care medical cannabis dispensary in Chicago in June 2019. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

Since sales began in November 2015, the medical cannabis program in Illinois has had about $200 million in wholesale sales, and $364 million in retail sales — a markup of about 76%, which has increased with greater demand this year.

About 4,500 physicians certified patients for medical cannabis in the most recent fiscal year. Most certified fewer than 25 patients, but 58 physicians certified more than 100 patients each. One unidentified physician submitted certifications for patients to substitute cannabis for opioids more than 1,000 times.

Most of the patients — 55% — were 50 years old or older. The number of patients was distributed fairly evenly across all age ranges, though those under 30 made up only 11 percent of patients. The number of men and women was split almost evenly, with slightly more women participating.

Geographically, not surprisingly, Cook County, the state’s most populous county, had the most patients by far with 17,587, followed by the collar counties and Winnebago County, where Rockford is located. One-third of the counties had 60 patients or fewer.

Of 21 licensed operating cultivation centers and 55 licensed medical cannabis dispensaries in Illinois, the most popular by far was the Clinic Mundelein, with 2,550 patients, followed by Dispensary 33 in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, EarthMed in Addison, 3C Compassionate Care Center in Naperville, and Moca Modern Cannabis in Chicago’s Logan Square —all in or near relatively affluent areas.

Linda Marsicano, a spokeswoman for Green Thumb Industries, which operates the Clinic Mundelein and 3C, credited their patient care specialists for providing personalized service and public education.

Israel’s medical cannabis reform continues to benefit nearly no one

Israel’s medical cannabis patients are making another step in their battle against the country’s new regulation, which came into full effect in early September. Intended to help standardize the industry by requiring more stringent quality control and adding pharmacies as middlemen between growers and patients, the reform has so far resulted in market shortages and hiked prices. Now patients are demanding that pharmacies hand all their unstandardized supply back to the growers.

Before the reform, patients with a medical cannabis license paid a fixed sum of NIS 370 (approximately $105) a month regardless of the amount they were prescribed. Now, pharmacies charge NIS 180 (approximately $51) per 10 grams, meaning anyone buying over 20 grams is paying more than they did before the reform. Additionally, the Ministry of Health has forced growers to hand over all product that does not meet the new quality standard, to accustom patients to the new procedure.

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Israel’s medical cannabis patients have petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court some months ago to put a stop to the new regulations. The court has ordered the ministry of health to extend all pre-reform patient licenses until March 2020, enabling those patients to continue buying cannabis products according to the old pricing and standard. Last week, Israeli nonprofit the Medical Cannabis Association sent a letter to all growers, stating that despite the court order some growers have refused to comply and supply product according to the old prices. In the letter, the association threatened to appeal the court to hold violating growers in contempt.

Now, the association is taking its battle to the pharmacies. On Friday, the association sent a letter to umbrella organization the Pharmaceutical Association of Israel, stating that according to the court ruling they must either return all non-standardized cannabis product to the growers or sell it according to the old prices. Pharmacists must comply with the court order, which “supersedes any administrative directive to the contrary,” the letter said.

David Papo, chairman of the Pharmaceutical Association of Israel, told Calcalist that the pharmacists are but the messengers. It is the growers who are deliberately creating shortages and hiking prices, he said, and the pharmacists are forced to sell according to the prices imposed by the growers.

The pharmacists put the blame for the shortages on the growers when the latter did not hand over their non-standardized supply, and now when the supply has been handed over, they still blame the growers, Dana Bar-On, the founder and CEO of the Medical Cannabis Association, told Calcalist. But the growers are not the only ones at fault for the shortages and the exorbitant prices, Bar-On said. “These are non-standardized products that still fall under the old regulation that are now sold in pharmacies,” she said. “The absurdity eclipses all logic.”

Though no grower has agreed to go on record, several growers who talked to Calcalist on condition of anonymity described their situation as being between a rock and a hard place. They comply with the regulator and the law, they said, but the regulator has “seized” all cannabis products and handed them to the pharmacies, even the non-standardized product that the Supreme Court has ordered could still be supplied outside of pharmacies. It is the health ministry in its role as the regulator that must solve the situation, they said.