Bellwethr Magazine

The Marijuana Majority

Florida is scheduled to vote on the legalization of medical marijuana in this fall’s midterm election. Democrats see it as a chance to bring young voters to the polls in the Republican-led state. Meanwhile, ganjapreneurs count their potential profits.

WORDS BY Katrine Dermody // ART BY Katrine Dermody

Jeffrey Hanstein, 24, and his girlfriend, Noel Morris, 25, recently finished a four-week course they jokingly call Cannabis 101. The young couple, who hail from just outside of Orlando, Fla., enrolled in the Education in Cultivation class in anticipation of the passage of Amendment 2, Florida’s Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative on November’s ballot. The pair hopes to eventually build their careers on the agricultural side of the medical marijuana industry.

If recent poll numbers hold true, Hanstein, who works at a natural tobacco shop, and Morris, who works at an ice cream parlor, may soon quit their day jobs. According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 88 percent of Florida voters support allowing adults to legally use medically prescribed marijuana. Unsurprisingly, support tends to be highest among millennials. To that end, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that 69 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 nationwide favor the legalization of marijuana. Only 30 percent of people 69 and older support it.

“My brother has suffered from PTSD, and cancer has riddled my family,” Hanstein says. “Prescriptions can have so many negative effects, so I’m really interested in learning more about the natural route to healing. It’s where I want to start my career.”

“Florida is a political bellwether,” Pollara says.

Like Hanstein and Morris, medical marijuana advocates across the country are getting involved in the movement for a variety of personal and entrepreneurial reasons. Currently, 23 states and the District of Columbia allow either medical and/or recreational marijuana use, and more states may follow suit. Ohio and Pennsylvania have pending legislation, and this fall, Hanstein and Morris’ home state of Florida is scheduled to vote on medical marijuana ballot measures. Experts agree the stakes are especially high in the Sunshine State. If the amendment passes, Florida will be the first Southern state to legalize medical marijuana. According to the Florida Department of Health, that would mean the state, with its 420,000 potential patients and 1,800 possible treatment centers, could stand to gain hundreds of millions of dollars in tax, sales, and ancillary revenue. In short, Florida could become the second largest medical marijuana market in the country behind California.

Ben Pollara, campaign manager and treasurer for the pro-medical marijuana organization United for Care, says if the measure passes it could be a sign of bigger things to come.“Florida is a political bellwether,” Pollara says. “If you look at the states that have already passed medical marijuana, they’re mostly Western and Southwestern states that have strong libertarian underpinnings and Northeastern states which have a more liberal, progressive bent. Those are natural allies in a medical marijuana campaign, but Florida looks more like the United States as a whole.”

With only a few months left until the vote, Pollara is cautiously optimistic. “I think the chances are pretty good that this will pass. I’ll say this, I’d much rather be in the position that we are in as opposed to basically any other campaign in the state right now. We have to get a super majority, it takes 60 percent to pass a constitutional amendment in the state of Florida. It’s a big state and we take nothing for granted.”

Chris Arterton, professor of political management at The George Washington University, says initiatives like Amendment 2 could contribute to a higher turnout at this fall’s midterm elections. In fact, in a recent George Washington University’s Battleground Poll, 70 percent of likely voters nationwide reported that they’d more likely vote this November if medical marijuana usage was on the ballot, and 40 percent said they’d be much more likely. “Initiatives are often used to draw voters to the polls, especially in off-presidential elections where turnout drops dramatically,”Arterton says.“Of those who would turn out, the substantial majority (73 percent) is in favor of the initiative.”

Today’s $1.5 billion legal market will grow to an estimated $2.5 billion in 2014.

According to the official ballot language, the measure, upon voter approval, would legalize the cultivation, purchase, possession, and use of marijuana to treat medical conditions when recommended by a licensed physician. Moreover, it would order the Florida Department of Health to register and regulate producers and distributors of medical marijuana and to issue identification cards to patients and caregivers using marijuana.

Although the numbers look favorable, from now until November, medical marijuana advocates like Pollara will continue fighting to secure that super majority. One way they plan to do that is to spotlight the economic benefits already seen in states that have passed marijuana legislation. Thus far, in states that have legalized marijuana —medical and/or recreational —business is booming. Today’s $1.5 billion legal market will grow to an estimated $2.5 billion in 2014, according to industry estimates released by cannabis investment and research firm ArcView Group. As a result, entrepreneurs in states like Florida, which are on the cusp of legalization, are eager to break ground in the weed business.

However, legal medical and recreational marijuana merchants grapple with similar difficulties: opening and maintaining commercial bank accounts, securing small business loans, and accepting credit cards. Most of the legal upstart marijuana businesses have had to use cash to pay for everything — staff wages, supplies, and even taxes — which not only forces these law-abiding small business owners to operate under a false air of criminality, but it makes them a potential target for thieves.

“It’s only a matter of time before the whole country sees marijuana for what it is…”

Beyond the cash-only conundrum, ganjapreneurs, as marijuana merchants are sometimes cheekily called, are running into other logistical problems — from strict zoning laws to price-gouging landlords. But the biggest and most pressing issue still comes down to the green stuff — cash, not hash.

The Controlled Substances Act, enacted in 1970, classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the most dangerous category, which also includes heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. So, even though the United States Justice Department released a memo in 2013 informing banks that they can provide services to state-licensed weed businesses, marijuana’s status as an illegal drug under federal law continues to make banks wary of mingling with Mary Jane.

Enter Peter Sessa, chief operating officer of the Florida Cannabis Coalition. Sessa, who advises budding ganjapreneurs on their business decisions, says that the first mistake that many pot merchants make is coming up with a name. “The first thing that people want to do is come up with a cute weed-sounding name for their dispensary,” Sessa says. “There are a number of companies, over 100 is what I hear, that have registered or incorporated with some sort of ‘marijuana’ or ‘cannabis’in their name in Florida … There’s absolutely no reason for people to put those words into the name of their business, especially if they want to open a bank account at any point.”

These issues, which are popping up in states across the country, underscore the problematic, patchwork nature of how our federal and state laws evolve at different speeds and in different directions. And in a large, politically charged state like Florida, a topic such as medical marijuana only magnifies this complex political and logistical mismatch. “The entire country is looking at Florida. I mean, Florida has a history of crazy — everything from hanging chads to Trayvon Martin. Everything seems to happen in Florida,” Sessa says. “So we know Florida is going to be under a microscope.”

And Sessa may be right. Given its size, political demographics, and the subsequent business opportunities that could arise if Amendment 2 passes, eyes will be on Florida come November. But even if Amendment 2 does pass, medical marijuana hopefuls like Hanstein and Morris will still likely face a gauntlet of unforgiving regulations, sky-high registration fees, skittish banks, and other unforeseen challenges just for a chance at starting a career in the medical marijuana business.

But given the potential profit to be made and the people who could be helped, it’s a chance they’re willing to take. “It’s sad when people don’t see the potential, but we’re definitively moving in the right direction,” Morris says. “It’s only a matter of time before the whole country sees marijuana for what it is. The people who’re stuck in the past see it as reefer madness, but what they can’t see is that we are going to rebuild this country. We are going to cure diseases, and the United States is going to have a cash crop again.”

At press time, the New York State Senate and the New York State Assembly passed a bill  legalizing medical marijuana. Governor Cuomo has pledged to sign the bill into law, which would officially make New York the twenty-third state to create legal access to medical marijuana.

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