Step by step, Puerto Rico’s medical cannabis industry is getting off the ground. It promises benefits for patients and opportunities for entrepreneurs to create new companies and jobs.
Already, more than two-dozen companies have applied for operational licenses and others are expected to follow suit.
One potential job creation opportunity on the horizon is a high-tech system for “safe and consistent” cannabis cultivation that a U.S. firm is developing with the idea of possibly carrying out the product assembly on the island, according to César Cordero Krüger, CEO of Growblox Sciences Puerto Rico, LLC, a subsidiary of Las Vegas-based Growblox Sciences, Inc., which is spearheading the technology.
Cordero told News Is My Business that the prototype for the system, called a “Controlled Environment Cannabis Growing Chamber,” is now in its final stage of development and manufacturing could follow. The cost of investment is high, however, and will require partnerships to secure the needed capital, he said.
In the 15 months since Gov. Alejandro García-Padilla signed an executive order to allow the use of medical marijuana, regulations for the industry have been issued, qualifying patients have begun to register to use the drug, and physicians are enrolling in the program.
According to the Puerto Rico Health Department, 55 doctors have registered to prescribe marijuana.
Now, the government is turning its attention to the supply side, namely cultivation, production of medical cannabis products, and distribution.
Of these three activities, the latter is still lagging behind.
A Health official said 23 applications for marijuana cultivation are currently under review by a six-member team representing three departments (Health, Agriculture, and Economic Development and Commerce).
Another five applications cover production of cannabis-related products, said Mayra Maldonado, the department’s legal adviser.
Patients in Puerto Rico will not be allowed to smoke medical marijuana but can use other delivery methods such as oral drops, pills, topical creams and salves, suppositories, transdermal patches and edibles. Vaporizers to inhale marijuana are also allowed.
Maldonado said she expects the first marijuana products to be ready for sale by the end of the year. They will be available to patients through dispensaries operating in different parts of the island.
No application for dispensary has been submitted yet, she said. An industry source assured there is interest in setting up this type of facility and applications are forthcoming.
If a total of 28 license applications do not exactly suggest a stampede, the low number might reflect diverse factors such as, for example, the high cost of entering this industry (high license fees, investment costs and expenses tied to meeting extensive requirements).
Reservations over the size of the market could be holding back entrepreneurs as they wait and see how things develop before deciding to jump in.
There are 280,000 people in Puerto Rico who suffer from debilitating illnesses or conditions but exactly how many will turn to medical cannabis is a question mark. Qualifying conditions range from cancer, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis to migraine, anorexia, arthritis, and anxiety.
To date, only 10 patients have registered with the Health Department, according to Maldonado.
Meanwhile, Dr. Michael Soler pointed out there will be people unable to use marijuana because they are allergic to it.
Price will also limit accessibility.
Not a cheap product
Cannabis products don’t come cheap and people will have to pay for them out of pocket since neither private health insurance plans, nor the government’s health plan for the medically indigent will cover the cost.
“This is an illegal drug,” Maldonado reminded.
Officially the federal government says marijuana is a dangerous drug. Unofficially, it has made clear it will not intervene in states that have legalized marijuana for medical and/or recreational use as long the drug is kept away from children. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have marijuana programs.
Goodwin Aldarondo, president of Puerto Rico Legal Marijuana, sees a big potential for marijuana.
He estimates that within three years medical marijuana could be generating as much as $50 million in monthly revenue from fees, taxes, licenses, and sales to local patients and medical tourists with proof of enrollment in a similar program in their home state or country.
“The medical tourism component is going to be very important,” said Aldarondo, an attorney.
Puerto Rico Legal Marijuana is a nonprofit organization that educates the public on legal matters related to medical marijuana and holds seminars for people interested in participating in this new sector.
Meanwhile, GB Sciences Puerto Rico is standing by as the “Controlled Environment Cannabis Growing Chamber” undergoes validation testing to ensure it meets all its specifications. This highly sophisticated system provides a controlled environment for cannabis plants to grow and produce a consistent, high-grade medicinal product. Each fully enclosed chamber contains an individual plant, isolating and protecting it from harmful contaminants and from mice and insect infestations. All variables such as lighting, humidity, and water are carefully monitored electronically.
According to Cordero, the stateside market for controlled, indoor plant-growing solutions is “experiencing growth due to such factors as “outdoor plagues, extreme weather changes, suitable land scarcity and increased demand for food.”
Founded in 2001, GBLX is a diversified company dedicated to cultivation, biopharmaceutical research and development. It recently inaugurated its first medical marijuana dispensary in Las Vegas that will serve as a distribution channel for a soon-to-open 28,000-square-foot cannabis cultivation facility, also in that city.
Cordero, a trained engineer with more than two decades of experience in Puerto Rico’s real estate field, said he has set up a separate company to grow medical cannabis. With an initial payroll of six to seven people, Herbal Biotech Pathway will grow marijuana in a controlled environment, using a hydroponic or aeroponic method. He is in the process of filing for a license, he said.
Raising an industry from scratch, especially one that requires so many safeguards because it revolves around a stigmatized weed, doesn’t happen overnight.
Aldarondo anticipates that it will probably take between three to five years for the industry to fully take off. He has no doubts that it will.
“It is not a question of whether it may or may not happen,” he said. “It is going to happen.”