Puerto Rico bets on pot to ease cri­sis

Back­ers look for med­i­cal mar­i­juana to add jobs, tax rev­enue on debt-laden is­land

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - DAN­ICA COTO

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — 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 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 cen­ters 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 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 per­cent.

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 per­cent 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.”

In more pop­u­lous Colorado, with a much broader re­cre­ational-mar­i­juana mar­ket, the state earned $200 mil­lion in state tax rev­enue last year, ac­cord­ing to Clin­ton Saloga, a re­search as­so­ciate with Colorado’s Mar­i­juana Pol­icy Group. He said he doesn’t ex­pect med­i­cal mar­i­juana to be a huge eco­nomic boon for Puerto Rico.

“In terms of be­ing a sav­ior … I don’t think it would sin­gle-hand­edly ac­com­plish that, but it would be a new, un­tapped source of em­ploy­ment, eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity and tax rev­enues that could pro­vide sig­nif­i­cant re­lief,” he said.

Med­i­cal mar­i­juana is le­gal in 29 states, but Puerto Rico has some ad­van­tages: Tax rates on the in­dus­try are lower and it’s not sub­ject to a fed­eral law that pro­hibits in­vestors from de­duct­ing cannabis-re­lated op­er­at­ing ex­penses for tax pur­poses.

One gram costs roughly $20, although some dis­pen­saries have spe­cials for $10 a gram, which is roughly the av­er­age price in states where med­i­cal mar­i­juana is le­gal.

In­vestors in Puerto Rico have spent more than $3 mil­lion to ob­tain health depart­ment li­censes to cul­ti­vate, man­u­fac­ture and sell med­i­cal mar­i­juana. So far, the is­land has 27 dis­pen­saries, 11 grow­ing fa­cil­i­ties, five man­u­fac­tur­ing cen­ters and two lab­o­ra­to­ries re­spon­si­ble for an­a­lyz­ing all med­i­cal mar­i­juana be­fore it’s sold.

The health depart­ment also has cer­ti­fied nearly 300 doc­tors who can pre­scribe mar­i­juana. They pay $1,500 ev­ery three years for a per­mit af­ter tak­ing re­quired cour­ses.


Noel Sola, a cul­ti­va­tion worker at Nat­u­ral Ven­tures, in­spects mar­i­juana plants in Caguas, Puerto Rico last month.


Juan Manuel Ro­driguez, an in­vestor at Nat­u­ral Ven­tures, smells a jar of mar­i­juana fi­nal prod­uct, in Caguas, Puerto Rico late last month.

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