Bet­ting on pot

Puerto Rico hopes med­i­cal mar­i­juana will help ease eco­nomic cri­sis

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - BUSINESS - BY DAN­ICA COTO

Je­sus Aponte pushes a door open to re­veal hun­dreds of aro­matic, spiky green plants, a crop that Puerto Rico hopes will help it ease a grind­ing eco­nomic cri­sis by gen­er­at­ing mil­lions in rev­enue and tens of thou­sands of jobs.

Aponte, a 29-year-old bi­ol­o­gist and chem­i­cal en­gi­neer, had been think­ing of join­ing the wave of young Puerto Ri­can pro­fes­sion­als head­ing to the U.S. to seek work - an ex­o­dus that has ag­gra­vated the U.S. ter­ri­tory’s woes. But then he saw the saw the is­land’s med­i­cal mar­i­juana in­dus­try start to ex­pand, and found one of the rare new jobs open­ing up on the is­land, over­see­ing some 2,000 plants at the Natural Ven­tures fa­cil­ity.

“This is an eco­nomic niche that we can grab on to,” he said, though he added, “A lot of peo­ple told me, ‘What are you do­ing with your life? You’re throw­ing away your fu­ture.”’

But like more than two dozen U.S. states, Puerto Rico is pin­ning a lit­tle of its fu­ture on the re­cently il­le­gal drug.

The ter­ri­tory le­gal­ized med­i­cal mar­i­juana by de­cree nearly two years ago and new Gov. Ri­cardo Ros­sello last month signed a mea­sure that set out a le­gal frame­work for the in­dus­try. Back­ers say that will spark an ex­pan­sion of the pot fields, man­u­fac­tur­ing cen­tres and dis­pen­saries that have been pop­ping up across the is­land.

“A lot of peo­ple were wait­ing for this law,” said at­tor­ney Goodwin Al­darondo, pres­i­dent of Puerto Rico Le­gal Mar­i­juana, a con­sult­ing com­pany. “It’s the only vi­able al­ter­na­tive we have to solve the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion. It’s been many, many years since Puerto Rico has had a new in­dus­try.”

For Narelis Cortes, the is­sue isn’t so much work as con­quer­ing pain.

She’s one of nearly 9,000 Puerto Ri­cans who have paid $25 a year for a per­mit to use med­i­cal mar­i­juana to treat at least 14 pre-ap­proved con­di­tions in­clud­ing HIV, cancer, mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis, mi­graines, anx­i­ety and epilepsy.

The 32-year-old mother and Air Force vet­eran said rheuma­toid arthri­tis, fi­bromyal­gia and the ini­tial stages of Parkin­son’s dis­ease had kept her in bed for hours a day. She said she spends about $350 a month on med­i­cal mar­i­juana. She vapes ev­ery four to six hours and has elim­i­nated the need for 20 med­i­ca­tions.

“I’m func­tional now,” she said.

The is­land’s trea­sury sec­re­tary says the med­i­cal mar­i­juana in­dus­try could gen­er­ate up to $100 mil­lion a year, in part through a sales and use tax, and help ease an un­em­ploy­ment rate that has hov­ered around 12 per cent.

That would be a rare glim­mer of good news for an is­land fac­ing bil­lions of dol­lars in bud­get cuts, a pub­lic debt load of more than $70 bil­lion and a pop­u­la­tion that is de­clin­ing as peo­ple flee to the main­land seek­ing bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“Name one new in­dus­try in Puerto Rico ca­pa­ble of gen­er­at­ing mil­lions and bil­lions in cap­i­tal and im­prov­ing an econ­omy in a mega-cri­sis. There is none,” said David Quinones, op­er­a­tions di­rec­tor of Natural Ven­tures, the is­land’s largest med­i­cal mar­i­juana pro­ducer.

How­ever, Puerto Rico econ­o­mist Indira Lu­ciano said the state’s rev­enue pro­jec­tions are too high, es­pe­cially be­cause of­fi­cials didn’t take into ac­count vari­ables such as the prices of prod­ucts, the avail­abil­ity of other treat­ments, and wages on an is­land with a 45 per cent poverty rate.

She said the econ­omy would re­ceive a big­ger boost if Puerto Rico went fur­ther and le­gal­ized recre­ational mar­i­juana: “The stricter the law, the less eco­nomic im­pact it will have.”

AP PHOTO

In this July 24 photo, Juan Manuel Rodriguez, an in­vestor at Natural Ven­tures in­spects mar­i­juana plants in a bloom room in Caguas, Puerto Rico. In­vestors in Puerto Rico have spent more than $3 mil­lion to ob­tain li­cences is­sued by the is­land’s health depart­ment to cul­ti­vate, man­u­fac­ture and sell med­i­cal mar­i­juana.

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