By Mike Fitzgerald
January is hardly the optimal time of year to pour concrete and begin construction on a $6 million, state-of-the-art medical marijuana cultivation center and greenhouse.
But marketing guru Mara “Mitch” Meyers, who during her days in the beer industry became known as the “mother of Bud Light,” wants to attach her name to another type of bud, one with the potential to create thousands of new jobs nationwide and treat a long litany of illnesses and medical conditions.
Meyers’ firm, Nature’s Care, is one of nine applicants who have filed to open a medical marijuana cultivation center in District 11, which covers St. Clair, Madison, Clinton, Bond and Monroe counties. The Illinois Department of Agriculture is expected to announce the 21 winners of the cannabis cultivation licenses statewide as early as Wednesday under the four-year pilot program that begins next year.
The five counties that make up the district will be allowed one permit for a cultivation center. Eleven medical marijuana dispensary applications have been filed for District 11, which is allowed two permits.
Meyers said she won’t waste a moment if the state of Illinois approves her application to build a medical marijuana greenhouse on a 14-acre site off Illinois 13 near Marissa. “We would get started immediately,” Meyers said, noting that the pilot program under which she would get permission to open the facility requires a crop to be planted and growing within six months’ time.
“We will have that greenhouse up and operating in four to five months and growing plants,” Meyers said. “And while that is occurring, we will be building the processing building that will be attached to it. I would say within seven months we could be shipping our first product to the dispensary.”
Illinois’ Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program will allow doctors to prescribe marijuana to treat debilitating conditions such as HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and others.
So far, 150 entities statewide have applied for cultivation permits. The rules call for most areas of the state to have one or two dispensaries and one cultivation center per Illinois State Police district.
In light of the large sums of money involved — in terms of up-front investments and potential payoffs — it is hardly surprising the pilot program is attracting highly experienced and deep-pocketed businesspeople like Meyers.
Meyers, who in 1980 earned a master’s in business administration from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, began her career in brand management with 7UP. She then moved on to beer giant Anheuser-Busch, in St. Louis, where she became marketing director for a new A-B beverage unit, making her, at the time, the top-ranking woman in Anheuser-Busch corporate marketing.
In 1987, AdWeek named her Woman of the Year. Meyers left the beer giant to help launch Zipatoni, a marketing firm where she had served as chief executive. When she retired in 2003, the firm had offices in five states and 350 employees. In early 2014, she helped start a firm called Proof Agency, which helps craft distillers and brewers take on much larger competitors.
Meyers, 58, acknowledged that 30 years ago, during her A-B career, she could hardly have imagined herself answering to the title of “medical marijuana entrepreneur.”
So what changed?
“I spent a lot of time in Colorado over the last 15 years,” Meyers said. “When I saw what’s going on out there, and I saw the medical happening, and I actually know people that have used it successfully in various ailments and treatments, it’s like, ‘OK, there’s something real about this.'”
Meyers made her name — the “mother of Bud Light” — for her ability to market a wide variety of alcoholic beverages. Now she plans to apply that marketing savvy to the new frontier that is Illinois cannabis.
Meyers said the list of strict laws under the Illinois pilot program is a good thing, since it is based on the experience of pioneer states such as Colorado, the home of around 700 dispensaries and 500 growers.
“They were pioneers doing this for 10 years,” Meyers said. “And every year, they make changes to their rules and regulations, which makes it hard to comply. So many people have lost a lot of money because as the state changes the law, they are out of compliance.”
One of the criteria that makes Illinois’ pilot program so tough is the high cost of entry. Applicants for one of the 21 cultivation permits statewide must submit a $25,000 nonrefundable application fee. And if a cultivation permit is issued, then it will cost $200,000 the first year, and $100,000 annually for each following year.
Permit recipients must also provide evidence of financial responsibility, by posting a $2 million surety bond. The bond would be refunded at increments of $500,000 annually for each of the pilot program’s four years.
Products grown at the Marissa marijuana greenhouse would be sold at 60 dispensaries spread across the state.
Another company vying for a cannabis cultivation permit in the metro-east is Largo Meds LLC, of Chicago. It has obtained agreements with Wood River, as well as the towns of Centralia and Princeton, that would enable Largo to build cultivation centers in three ISP districts if awarded the necessary state licenses.
A representative of Largo Meds could not be reached for comment.
The state has not released the names of the applicants, but the News-Democrat obtained the names of Largo Meds and Nature’s Care through public zoning meetings.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation July 20 that added adults and children suffering from seizures to be able to use prescribed medical marijuana. The law also allows children under 18, with a parent’s consent, to be treated with non-smokable forms of medical marijuana for the same conditions now available to adults.
“This new law will help alleviate the suffering of many adults and children across the state,” Quinn said in a statement at the time. “Epilepsy is a debilitating condition, and this much needed relief will help to reduce some of its symptoms for those who endure seizures. The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act is now designed to help our fellow citizens of all ages by allowing its strictly controlled use for specific medical conditions.”
The St. Clair County Board in July gave the green light for a medical marijuana farm to be located near Marissa.
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The proposal was the first to be considered in the metro-east and would sell cannabis in dried “bud” form and as edible products.
Nature’s Care, the $6 million grow center that Meyers wants to build, would grow up to 15 strains of cannabis in a greenhouse attached to a 20,000-square-foot building. The building would include a commercial kitchen to make the edible products, such as cookies, hard candies and drinks.
The enclosed, locked facility would employ about 30 people and be located on 14-plus acres along Illinois 13. Surrounded by a tall fence, the greenhouse must be air tight and under 24/7 closed circuit TV monitoring.
Meanwhile, the competition remains intense to get into the medical marijuana business in the metro-east.
Medical marijuana patients must have a written certification from a doctor and get a background check, then pay $100 a year to apply for a medical marijuana card. Disabled people and veterans will pay $50 annually. Patients must be diagnosed with one of the dozens of qualifying medical conditions, such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV or hepatitis C.
One potential wrinkle for medical marijuana entrepreneurs such as Meyers and others statewide has to do with potential opposition from incoming Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner, who during his gubernatorial campaign last fall expressed his concerns about legalized medical cannabis.
“Obviously any time you have change in political management, you have to be worried about it,” Meyers said. “If we have three years to show the people of the state that this is something that helps the people of the state and provides tax revenue, it’s not a drain on anything, they’ll probably have a hard time canceling it at that point, when you have a lot of sick people using this medicine effectively.”
Bradley Vallerius, a lawyer and consultant for the state’s fledgling marijuana industry, said he feels confident that political considerations won’t affect the pilot program.
“The governor has no power to make legislation. That’s the general assembly’s job. So it’s not like the governor can come in and kill the pilot program,” said Vallerius, of Gillespie, located about 60 miles north of Belleville. “We’d like to think politics isn’t going to play into it. I still think the pilot program is going to continue throughout the remainder of the four years without substantial change due to a new governor taking office.”
Vallerius acknowledged that a change has taken place in the general public’s viewpoint on medical marijuana in recent years, a transition that has forced political leaders to play catch-up with public opinion.
The roots of this turnabout in public opinion stems from the explosion of information on the Internet about the real dangers and benefits of cannabis, he said.
“People can get on the Internet and they can see for themselves that there’s this little girl out in Colorado who’s been having so many seizures per day, and her parents are brave enough to try THC oil and it works,” Vallerius said, adding that a documentary that CNN medical journalist Dr. Sanjay Gupta produced about the girl’s case “had a monumental effect on a lot of people. Yeah, people are learning they’ve been lied to and propagandized about the subject of cannabis generally, that it is not as harmful as we’ve been told.”