By Nassim Benchaabane St. Louis Post-Dispatch
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) It is a competitive field of candidates vying for marijuana licenses in Missouri. Nassim Benchaabane introduces us to some of the entrepreneurs who hope to grow their dreams across the "Show-Me" state.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
A St. Louis rehab clinician, a Vietnam veteran, a martial arts fighter and four sisters are among Missourians statewide applying this week to produce or sell Missouri's newest cash crop and medical treatment: marijuana.
They want to open pot shops or growing operations across the St. Louis area, from St. Louis to Ferguson to Imperial and Troy, Missouri.
"The next week is really going to be a culmination of a lot of Missouri entrepreneurial dreams," said Jack Cardetti, spokesman for the Missouri Cannabis Trade Association.
Applications to become a legal marijuana user opened in late June; Missouri has approved more than 5,000 people with qualifying conditions to legally purchase or use marijuana, and in some cases, grow it at home.
Not all of them will win licenses; they've been preparing for months for a competitive application process, putting together executive teams, hiring consultants, hunting for properties and putting in writing minute details of their business plans, from odor control and security to economic impact.
They also navigated challenges unique to the industry; the federal government classifies marijuana as an illegal substance, meaning federally backed banks and property owners won't service marijuana businesses, which also can't apply for tax credits or other federal programs.
"To start a company up in a brand new industry, that would be tough to do within a year in any industry," said Jason Fulbright, an Arnold city councilman and real estate agent who is among the applicants. "But add in all the different pieces -- and an industry that is highly regulated. Doing that this quickly is very difficult."
Among the applicants are Noah's Arc and Beleaf Medical, two Missouri businesses already licensed to grow hemp, marijuana's botanical cousin, to make CBD oils. Both are applying for licenses for 11 operations, the maximum number allowed for any one group.
Marijuana businesses from other states also are competing for Missouri turf -- at least nine groups from outside the state, like Curaleaf, a Massachusetts-based giant in the industry.
Some St. Louis-area applicants have ties to state politics, like Missouri Cannabis Trade Association board member Bradford Goette, part of a group of oil, tobacco and liquor executives whose PAC gave a total of $157,600 to candidates and causes last year.
Other applicants with political ties include former state Rep. Amber Boykins, of St. Louis; Charles A. Hurth, a former city attorney for New Haven who headed two nonprofit groups that donated thousands to Republican political campaigns in other states; and Wardell Carter, a drug rehab owner and son of former state Sen. Paula J. Carter.
And in Kansas City, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson's niece wants to open a dispensary.
None of these plans were public record until the Post-Dispatch won a court fight forcing the state to turn over the names of applicants who had prepaid thousands in application fees. Missouri has raked in more than $4.2 million from the fees.
Some applicants declined to comment or did not respond to requests. Others spoke to the Post-Dispatch about their plans, providing a glimpse of who could be opening dispensary doors by next spring:
Rehab clinic owner Carter directs the nonprofit West End Clinic, a drug rehab center in St. Louis that serves about 550 patients battling opioid addiction with methadone, a medication that can block the euphoric effects of illegal drugs while also normalizing brain chemistry. The treatment can take months.
Marijuana is a safer alternative, Carter said.
"Here is a medicine that can provide a lot of relief to people," Carter said. "You really want people to be drug free -- but if they can't be drug free you don't want them to die."
His group, West End Cannabis, is a black-owned and invested business applying to operate five marijuana dispensaries in "low employment ZIP codes" in north St. Louis city and county, with plans to put one dispensary next to the methadone clinic in the predominantly African American West End neighborhood. He says they'll sell marijuana at discounted rates for people with low incomes.
"What we have in mind is like urgent care -- we want to be able to help people," he said.
Military veterans Thomas Mundell, a Vietnam veteran and former head of the state VFW, wants to grow, process and sell marijuana products in Bridgeton. He was long against marijuana use, but he dedicated himself to legalizing marijuana after his son Thomas, also a military veteran, died after mixing alcohol and prescription pills. The elder Mundell had told his son to stop using marijuana before his death.
"I just hate that he had to pay a terrible price for me to change and go after it and help inform people about a plant I really believe will become the holy grail of natural medicine," he said.
Joe Ingrande, a veteran of the Gulf War, and his son hope to open three dispensaries in Troy, St. Ann and Bowling Green, Missouri., and primarily serve military veterans.
"I'm a disabled veteran," said Ingrande, a project manager for Concrete Strategies. "I saw a bunch of my buddies self medicating and stuff like that and getting addicted to opioids."
Their business team includes Ian Zarvos, a mixed martial arts fighter and trainer in St. Ann. The group's name, Mission 22 Medical, refers to a study of suicides among U.S. military active members and veterans.
"We've been able to get a lot of sweat equity because of the Mission 22 mantra, if you will," he said. "People are on board to help us."
Family-owned startups Marijuana-infused gummy candies brought pain relief for Tina Rigoni's father, who battled Alzheimer's and inoperable lung cancer, during a family trip to Colorado.
Rigoni, of Weldon Spring, and her three sisters -- two in the medical field and one a computer programmer -- put much of their life savings into plans to open two dispensaries in St. Peters, she said. She thinks marijuana can help Missourians like her twin, who has been diagnosed with lymphoma, and Tina Rigoni's son, a military veteran diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"There are so many people we can help," said Rigoni, who is an assistant for an orthopedic surgeon.
Keyonna Gray, a first-time entrepreneur, and her mother-in-law, Angela Gray, a home-care aide, plan to open a facility in north St. Louis County to sell marijuana-infused edibles.
"I feel like we can help a lot of people," said the younger Gray, 25. "I'm against other drugs, like opiates. The community is tired of suffering from drugs like that."
The pair spent time apprenticing with legal weed businesses in Oregon and Washington, and attended marijuana business conferences across Missouri. They're fundraising however they can, including by putting on concerts.
"We're exploring our options right now to see if we can find investors and people willing to give us a chance to join this industry, or people who don't know how to do it themselves and will invest in our company," Keyonna Gray said. Developers, city councilmen
Fulbright, a real estate agent, wants to open two dispensaries, a growing operation and a facility that makes marijuana-infused products in Pevely and Imperial, in Jefferson County. He, like most other applicants, said his group would review its application over and over again until deadline at midnight Saturday.
"Everyone is trying to do due diligence to make sure everything is right," he said. "We feel very good about what we've put together."
This isn't the first run at a marijuana business for Brian Fox and Bob Greene. The pair, who grew up in the St. Louis area, opened the first licensed marijuana dispensary in Illinois in 2015 and now own marijuana businesses in Maryland and California.