On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Guest Host: Dan Reed
Almost three dozen states have legalized medical marijuana, including D.C. in 2013 and Maryland in 2017. This has led to an entire industry of people looking to grow and process cannabis and to get the drug into the hands of patients. Now, a ground-breaking graduate program at the University of Maryland at Baltimore seeks to further professionalize the industry by offering students a master’s degree in medical cannabis science.
But who is taking advantage of these entrepreneurship opportunities? And do the demographics of the medical marijuana industry mirror those of the region?
Produced by Laura Spitalniak
DAN REEDWelcome back. I'm Dan Reed, in for Kojo Nnamdi. The District of Columbia legalized marijuana in 2014, but it can only be sold commercially to medical patients. Maryland's medical marijuana program has been operational since 2017. More and more entrepreneurs are getting into the medical marijuana industry, but do the industry's demographics mirror those of the region? Joining us to discuss this today are Martin Austermuhle, a multimedia reporter here at WAMU. Thanks for being here.
MARTIN AUSTERMUHLEThanks for having me.
REEDLinda Green, owner and CEO of Anacostia Organics. Thanks for being here.
LINDA GREENEThank you.
REEDNorbert Pickett, the owner of Cannabliss, thanks for being here.
NORBERT PICKETTThank you. I appreciate it.
REEDAnd Leah Sera, program director for the MS in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics program at the University of Maryland. Thanks for being here.
LEAH SERAThank you.
REEDMartin, residents of this region have had to navigate three sets of marijuana laws. How do the rules in D.C., Maryland and Virginia compare?
AUSTERMUHLEPretty dramatically. I mean, we can start in Virginia, the most restrictive state, where it is illegal to possess. It is very limited in terms of medical uses, like a very, very small medical program. In the District, like you mentioned, it is legal for recreational purposes in a somewhat weird way. You can't sell it. You can't buy it. You can give it away. You can grow it in your home. You can possess it for personal use, and you can grow it in your home.
AUSTERMUHLEIn Maryland, it is decriminalized. The possession of it is decriminalized. And on the medical side, they have a two-year-old medical marijuana program that has about 85,000 patients in it right now. So, again, as you go south to north, it gets a little more permissive, but still, it's kind of a patchwork of laws. And the one thing I always tell everybody, when it comes to marijuana, regardless of where you are, just don't cross borders with it. No matter if it's legal in one place, don't go from one place to another. It's not a good idea.
REEDYou recently reported on the demographics of medical marijuana industry in this region. What'd you find?
AUSTERMUHLEWell, it's really interesting. I mean, ever since medical marijuana and recreational marijuana has become legal in a lot of places across the country, there's been an industry that's grown up around it, for obvious reasons. Someone needs to grow it, process it and sell it. But the issue is: who gets to grow it and process and sell it?
AUSTERMUHLEAnd what's come out in a lot of states is a lot of the people stepping into the industry are folks who have access to capital, folks who are already kind of well-positioned to take advantage of licensing opportunities. And, in a lot of cases, those are white people, you know, kind of to just cut straight to the chase. And what has happened recently -- and this came up especially in Maryland, with its medical system -- is that the majority, the overwhelming majority of people who got licenses to grow, process and sell medical marijuana were white.
AUSTERMUHLEAnd there was a lot of concern. When the laws were passed, people were saying, hold on, that doesn't reflect the demographics of the state. It also doesn't reflect the realities that the majority of the victims of the war on drugs across the country -- and also in Maryland, the District and Virginia -- were African American and Latino. So, there were a lot of conversations around, well, who should get access to this incredibly -- or potentially incredibly lucrative market, both on the medical side and the recreational side?
REEDNorbert, you're the founder of Cannabliss, the only dispensary located in Ward 7. How were you introduced to the medical cannabis industry?
PICKETTWell, I was a television and film producer for a long time, and found myself hit in a really bad car accident that left me permanently disabled. It took five years to get back on my feet. I went through about 18 procedures, five major surgeries. I have a lot of hardware on my spine from my cervical, down to my lumbar, and almost passed away from the surgery from a neurosurgeon putting a screw in my aorta.
PICKETTI was on five different opioids. And I was an athlete. I was a college basketball player, inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015. And I couldn't accept that. I don't drink alcohol. I'm vegan. And the opioids were having a dramatic effect on my life, on my quality of life, and me interacting with my child, and also me being able to just to be happy and be in a good space.
PICKETTAnd so my doctor suggested that I medicate with cannabis and, you know, the results were tremendous. Very little side effects, and it also helped me to get off of the opioids that I was on. When I moved from L.A. to Washington, D.C., I found that prices were really high here, coming from that medical market. And so I decided to -- when an RFP came out for a dispensary in Ward 7, I decided to apply in order to bring down prices for patients, because you can't write this off as a co-pay from insurance, and it's very expensive. It's actually 20 percent higher here in the District than it is in the rest of the country.
REEDLinda, how difficult was it for you to start in the cannabis industry?
GREENEIt was quite difficult, as a matter of fact. I've been in the industry for six years now. My background is public relations, government relations. And I had to really become a little dissatisfied and bored with that. But, one time, I was chief of staff to Marion Barry, so I followed legislation quite carefully. And it was brought to my attention that cannabis was legal -- medical cannabis was legal in the District of Columbia. The first cultivated licenses were awarded in 2011 and 2012, and the dispensary licenses were awarded in 2013 and 2014. And I believe Takoma Wellness, Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn, was the first to actually open a medical marijuana dispensary in the District of Columbia.
GREENESo, my curiosity got the best of me, and I started looking at the demographics of who were awarded the cultivation and dispensary licenses. I really wanted a cultivation license over a dispensary, but I found out that all of those were awarded and maxed out, according to the regulations. And so I decided to look at dispensaries, and found that we had five dispensary licenses awarded. And all of those were located in the more affluent parts of the District of Columbia, that no native, longtime Washingtonians had been awarded a license.
GREENEOne minority woman had been awarded a license, and 25 percent of the medical marijuana cardholders at that time ranged from Wards 7 and 8. So, I took my legislative expertise to the mayor and to the council, and told them that they had unintentionally discriminated against longtime residents of the city, minorities and residents in Wards 7 and 8, and worked with them to introduce emergency legislation, which we got passed unanimously on emergency, and the mayor signed it immediately, which created the process for us to get dispensaries in Wards 7 and 8.
REEDWe've got a call from Michael in Fairfax, Virginia. Michael, you're on the line.
MICHAELGreat. Thank you, everybody. It's very fascinating. I am curious, though, on the finance side and banks not willing to work with this type of industry for legal purposes, how that's progressed, and if it's gotten any easier on what you do or options to deal with cash on hand. Because, historically, it's been a lot of cash-type industry. And so what you can expand on that would be great. Thanks.
GREENEWell, I'll try to answer your question. So, it is still basically a cash-only business. It's very hard to get banks to accept any cannabis funds, because they are federally chartered. And, federally, we are still illegal. So, that is the dilemma that they have. Do they want the money? They want the money, but they're afraid to lose their charter.
GREENESo, I am also a strategic advisor to the Cannabis Trade Federation. And we are very happy that, for the first time ever, a cannabis bill got out of the House of Representatives, which is a SAFE Banking Act. And it looks like we're going to get it through the Senate, so that is going to open doors. As a matter of fact, some banks have already started accepting, based on the belief that it's going to be passed through the Senate.
REEDNorbert, have you had any financial challenges setting up a marijuana business?
PICKETTI have not. You know, luckily, I was able to use my own money where I bought the building, and actually set up my business. But I'm hoping that they do pass the SAFE cannabis banking bill, because we need more transparency in the industry. Hopefully, that'll open us up for transparency in the industry. Right now, we don't know where a lot of money is coming from that are funding these cultivation facilities and some of these dispensaries.
PICKETTYou know, there was a referendum passed by the City Council in order to get more women and more minorities in the program. But what seems to have happened is that a lot of white-owned, multi-state operators have come in and put up women and minorities as fronts to their businesses in order for them to gain market share.
PICKETTI think we really need to open up the doors, look at the books. I'm more than happy to open up my books and show people, you know, where it's coming from, where it's going, how I'm running my business. I feel we need the same thing here in D.C. Because what's happening is there's a select few that have been able to control the market, which has, in turn, raised prices for patients, which I don't feel is right. That's why we have the highest prices in the country. It also allows the black market and the gray market to thrive.
PICKETTIf you look what's going on in Maryland, Maryland doesn't have any issues with gray market or black market, because they have plenty of dispensaries, plenty of cultivations, plenty of product that's available for patients to buy at a reasonable cost. If you look at what they're paying per pound in Maryland, it's about capped off pretty much at 2,500. Here, we're paying $9 a gram, which comes out to about $4,000 a pound. That's outrageous. If you look at California, the pounds really go from $1,000 to a little bit less.
PICKETTSo, we really need to focus on this and have more transparency, so people can understand, the public can understand who's really running and controlling these cultivation facilities and the dispensaries. It's important, because we have to bring down the prices for patients. And I think if we do that, that'll really kind of nip, you know, the black market where they're putting out illegal cartridges and flower that's been sprayed with pesticides.
REEDI've got a call from Nicky Peel in D.C. Nicky, are you there?
NICKYI'm here. How are you guys doing today? Hey, Martin, hey. Hey, Linda.
GREENEHey, Nicky. (laugh)
NICKYI'm calling in today, because, obviously, I am happy and proud to say that I am a customer of Anacostia Organics. I got my medical marijuana card from the District, and I don't regret it. I think, for a lot of people, especially Norbert's story touched me, is that you're in pain. Like I've had, you know, back surgery. I've been in pain for years, and I was fearful of opioids. Like, we all know the stories of where that can lead.
NICKYSo, I think that using medical marijuana, getting it from a responsible place, like a dispensary, is necessary. And I really would like to know, what have you seen in terms of being the fear or frustration from people who don't really understand the difference between a licensed dispensary and some of these gray market or illegal things that we see on the street, which people approach you quite often?
GREENEWell, I can tell you that there's a lot of confusion, Nicky, because if you ride up and down H Street Northeast, you will see brick-and-mortar businesses with the leaf on the outside, and saying that they are medical marijuana dispensaries. And they are medical marijuana dispensaries, but they are not licensed. And many of the patients think that they are going through a licensed, regulated facility, where the medications are lab-tested, quality controlled that they are getting.
GREENESo, our black market is really hurting the legalized businesses, as well as the fact that, you know, our medical program only has a little more than 6,000 patients in six years. And there are barriers for people to get their medical marijuana card. It makes it very hard. So, it's easier for them to go to the black market to get their medications. You know, they can't get -- they have to go to a medical professional to get a referral. And then they have to wait and upload it. You know, so it is an issue, but we're working very closely with the city to eliminate it and make it a lot easier.
REEDI want to turn now to Leah Sera, program director of the first medical cannabis masters program in the nation, at the University of Maryland. Can you tell us about the program?
SERAYes. The program started this past August. We welcomed our first class of 150 students. This is a two-year, Master of Science program, It's a part-time program. Primarily, courses are online. Students do come to our campus at the University at Shady Grove twice a year to engage with each other, network with professionals in the field, listen to expert programs. And it's been a very exciting few months.
REEDHow is your program diversifying the student poll?
SERAWe wanted a very diverse student group, because we know that there are a lot of complex issues related to medical cannabis. And so having a lot of experiences so that our students can learn from each other was important. We only have one real requirement to be considered for admission, and that's a Bachelor's Degree, because we are a graduate program. We don't require prerequisite science courses or a particular field of study. And so, in that way, we've been able to welcome students with a lot of academic and professional backgrounds.
REEDMartin, I want to talk a little bit about marijuana programs in other states. Illinois recently introduced something called the R3 program, which allocates a percentage of cannabis revenue to improve social determinance of health, like reducing gun violence or supporting returning citizens. Do you think a similar program could work here?
AUSTERMUHLEWell, so this is the whole idea. Again, it's not just who gets into the industry, who can benefit, who can make money off of the sale of marijuana, but also, how does the money that comes in in the form of tax revenue, how does that benefit everybody, especially communities that were most hurt by the drug war?
AUSTERMUHLESo, Illinois and another couple of states who are kind of getting into the medical game themselves or considering recreational programs are thinking a lot more aggressively about this idea of equity and how to use those revenues to benefit communities hurt by the drug war. It is a debate, actually, that came up a lot in Maryland over the last couple of years.
AUSTERMUHLEBut what they've run into -- and this is a challenge a lot of states have had -- is that you can't overtly say, okay, well, I'm going to put out a license for a medical marijuana dispensary, but this is only for black applicants. You can't say that. It's been litigated. Courts have said, like, that sort of overt kind of selection based on race or ethnicity isn't permissible. So, a lot of states have had to find creative ways to get around that.
AUSTERMUHLEAnd one way is by saying, if you live in a certain geographic part of the city or a state that was impacted by poverty, impacted by economic, you know, kind of difficulties or impacted by the war on drugs, you get preferential points. In Maryland, they give preferential points based on a disparity study that was done by the state, that basically showed that certain groups, African Americans, Native Americans, were basically at the wrong end of the spectrum when it came to gaining access to licenses. So, they're finding creative ways to make sure that the money and access to the money is distributed equitably and to communities who have suffered the most.
REEDWe'll continue our conversation after a short break. Please stay tuned.
REEDWelcome back. I'm Dan Reed, in for Kojo. We're talking about diversity in the medical marijuana industry. I've got a call from Anthony in Washington, D.C. Anthony, you're on the line.
ANTHONYHey, this is Anthony Lorenzo Green. I'm one of the ANC commissioners in the Deanwood Community in Ward 7. I represent the district where Norbert Pickett's dispensary is located, Cannabliss. And definitely just wanted to put my word out there that we are a community that has been very appreciative of this business coming to our side of town, especially where 20 percent of the patients in the medical marijuana program (unintelligible) to the river.
ANTHONYAnd the fact that we actually have a dispensary in our community where people have direct access to without all the stigmas attached to it and all the misinformation that's usually put out there about medical marijuana dispensaries, it's definitely been a great benefit for our community.
ANTHONYAnd it's unfortunate that he had to go through a process that didn't seem fair at all (unintelligible). He is a contributor to our community and really carries on the history of Deanwood of having resilient businesses that do everything possible to thrive and push back against entities that don't seem to be operating fairly in this market.
ANTHONYHe made a very important point about more transparency in this market, because there are a lot of dispensaries that are opened up as fronts, where they put a black face up. And once you dig a little deeper you realize that that person really doesn't have much ownership of the property at all.
REEDThank you very much. We've got another call from Suhand, also in Washington, D.C. Suhand, you're on the air.
SUHANDHi, how are you? I just wanted to call as someone who used to have a lot of judgment towards marijuana (unintelligible) chronic insomnia, maybe sleeping three hours a night and digestive issues which just cause a lot of pain. And only in the last year that I tried medical marijuana and get my license, and I have to say, it made such a difference in my life.
SUHANDI was on really strong medications for a very long time, especially for my sleep, that I later found out actually I have been on for more than a week, that the strength of them was similar to (unintelligible) people before they went into surgery. And I just wanted to say something...
REEDDid you have a question?
SUHANDYeah, I wanted to know, how much has the judgement, the same judgement that I had, had an impact on folks trying to open businesses in certain areas?
REEDThank you. We are here with two business owners. Norbert Pickett owns Cannabliss in Ward 7, and Linda Green owns Anacostia Organics in Ward 8. Did either of your face any judgment in opening your businesses?
PICKETTYes. I faced a lot. I actually tried to do all the right things in applying for this license. I went around for -- first of all, I bought the property, the building that my dispensary is in. I wanted to invest in the community. And with that, when the business opened, I was going to hire from within the community, which I did. I created 20 jobs. I tried to hire as many as I could from the neighborhood, which was around 10.
PICKETTBut, yes, it was tough. Basically, it wasn't easy dealing with the politicians. Then, ended up, I did not win the license initially, and had to file a lawsuit against D.C. Health. And once D.C. Health actually understood what it had done, it reversed itself and gave the license to me.
PICKETTAnd that's why it's important that we need to have more transparency. We need to find out who's applying for these, where is the money coming from. We need to follow the money. We need to understand that, and this is the regulators, this is the politicians, this is the administrators here.
PICKETTYou know, someone really needs to look into this program, before we have an adult use program, to straighten it out. Because what you're seeing is a select few out-of-state operators control this industry, which, in the end, affects the patient. He and she has to pay more at the register, which isn't right.
GREENEI did not have much -- I've lived in my community where Anacostia Organics -- where I opened my dispensary for 20 years. I've been very active in the city politics and the nonprofit area. And I've had several businesses in D.C. for 48 years. I'm well-known. In my community, I've found that the hardest thing was the education of the difference between medical cannabis and street drugs, because I live in Ward 8. And that's what we see, is street drugs.
GREENEAnd so one of the other things is that when a licensed facility opens in a community, it is proven that the crime gets better. The types of cameras and security and everything that you must have improves the quality of that community. But I'm just blessed, you know, and I'm very happy to have opened where I live and serve the residents that I live. And all of my employees are Ward 8 residents that live right in that community.
PICKETTAnd just regarding diversity a little bit, I just want to add on this point. You know, the industry's not diverse here in D.C., not at all. There's one black cultivator, and there's a couple black dispensary owners. You know, I've -- and when we talk about challenges that we've had here in the market with our dispensaries, you know, for example, I've had my own challenges with the trade association, where I was voted out on a secret vote because I posed a threat, because I was independent.
PICKETTI own my own building and my own business, and so if they really wanted to have diversity, they would include all of us. I'm the only black man that solely owns his business here in the District, and I was voted out of the trade association here in the District, in a secret vote. So, that should tell you a lot about the multistate operators and what's going on here in the industry here in D.C.
AUSTERMUHLEWell, the one thing I just want to toss back in the conversation is I remember covering this about five or six years ago, when there was talk of issuing the first licenses for dispensaries and cultivation centers in the District. And it was a really big fight back then. There was a lot more of that stigma still attached to what medical marijuana was and what a dispensary would look like, how a cultivation center would operate, what it would mean for the communities around it.
AUSTERMUHLESo, when people were applying for these licenses and disclosing the properties that they wanted to use, there was a lot of pushback in some of the communities. And part of it was also that some of these communities, like a lot of the cultivation centers are in a specific part of Northeast D.C., because that's where industrial land is. And there were a lot of communities that were concerned about this idea as, like, what, you're bringing more drugs into my community. What is this?
AUSTERMUHLEWhereas now, I think it's gotten to the point that these are an accepted part of the city's kind of business environment and landscape. So, if a medical marijuana business owner comes along and says, hey listen, I'd to love to open in your community, there's less of that same pushback that you had back in the day. Not that there's no pushback, but there's less of that stigma of, oh, this is marijuana.
REEDLeah, as the head of a program that is teaching new and emerging medical marijuana professionals, what are some things that your program could do or the government could do to help improve diversity in this industry?
SERAI think that speaking for our program, we're going to continue to make sure that we have students coming in from different geographic locations. We have students from over 30 states in our program. We have four international students in the program. We want students to have a diversity of backgrounds and experiences.
SERAA lot of our teaching is online, and so a lot of the teaching occurs between students in online discussion forums and in group projects. And so making sure that those groups have students with different experiences, making the learning experience richer, helping us as instructors to create and evolve classes that will help our students to go out as they graduate and really help evolve the industry is important to us.
REEDIt sounds like there was a lot of demand for this program.
SERAThere was. We had a wonderfully positive response to the program when we launched the program in July. And we had over 500 applicants for 150 spots in the program. And that first group of 150 started in August.
REEDWe've got a message from our Facebook page, from Alicia on the Eastern Shore. She writes: I have multiple sclerosis. It's a progressive disease. It started off not so painful, and now there are days when I could just scream. There are only four pills to be used for this kind of pain, but I'm terrified of medical marijuana. What could your guests share with me to help alleviate the fear I have of being high?
PICKETTWell, I know back pain all too well, having been hit in a car accident and having all the spinal injuries that I faced. I'd like to say that I found it a fantastic product that actually works. It's a suppository that's made by a District Cannabis, which I feel is the best cultivator here in Washington, D.C. Basically, it was made for women for endometriosis, and so it worked really well there. And then men who had spinal injuries tapped onto it and found out about it. And it's the only thing actually that I found that gives me about six to eight hours-worth of relief during the day.
PICKETTSo, my advice to you is, you know, if you're here in the District, you know, come on by District Wellness or Cannabliss, and I'll talk to you all about ways to medicate with your spinal injuries and also teach you about the suppositories.
REEDYou know, one thing we haven't brought up, and we're about to close out soon, is possibilities of recreational cannabis. Linda, do you believe that's something we should legalize?
GREENEAbsolutely. I think that -- I'm working very hard, you know, on The Hill, also, to help in prohibition. I don't think that we should even be having this conversation. Legalization, I think, is going to, maybe in the next couple of years or maybe about three years, I would say, we will be farther on our way in the country, but certainly in the District of Columbia. Yes, I'm all for it. I know that we are the nation's capital, and our rollout program -- I'm following in Illinois very closely. The rollout program is going to be monitored and watched by everyone, so we have to do it right.
REEDLinda Greene is the owner and CEO of Anacostia Organics. Thanks for being here.
GREENEThank you. It's my pleasure.
REEDNorbert Pickett is the owner of Cannabliss. Thanks for being here.
PICKETTThank you for having me.
REEDMartin Austermuhle is a multimedia reporter at WAMU. Thank you for being here.
AUSTERMUHLEAlways a pleasure.
REEDAnd Leah Sera is program director for the Medical Cannabis and Science and Therapeutics program at the University of Maryland. Thank you for being here.
SERAIt was a pleasure. Thank you.
REEDThe segment about diversity in the legal cannabis industry was produced by Laura Spitalniak. And our update about the new report on jails and justice in the District was produced by Monna Kashfi. Today is Election Day in Virginia, and this is a pivotal vote for so many reasons.
REEDTune in this evening at 9:00 p.m. for WAMU's Virginia Votes Election Night Special. Kojo will be back in the host chair, joined by our resident political analyst Tom Sherwood and special guests to bring you the latest results and analysis from across the Commonwealth. That's tonight, at 9:00 p.m. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Dan Reed, in for Kojo.
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