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BLOG: Finding balance in the emerging cannabis industry
"I've been working with a lot of opiate companies," a man was overheard saying at a recent cannabis business conference in Philadelphia. "I'm excited to get involved in an industry I actually believe will help."
A similar sentiment is shared by many industry experts I've spoken with in the month following the passage of a bill to create a medical marijuana program in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania is the 24th state, along with Washington, D.C., that has passed legislation legalizing marijuana in some form or another, and there are several more states with votes on potential legislation coming in the near future.
In Colorado, where recreational use is legal, the marijuana industry totaled nearly $1 billion in total sales during 2015, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.
This industry may have started thanks to a grassroots movement aimed at making cannabis available for medicinal use, but it clearly has significant financial potential, and the business world is taking notice.
Local residents wanting proof need look no further than Doylestown, where Kannalife Sciences operates a biotech center that is currently conducting research and development with cannabinoids (within medical marijuana).
Kannalife Sciences is headed up by CEO Dean Petkanas, the former vice president of corporate finance for Stratton Oakmont, a brokerage firm famously portrayed in the book and film "Wolf of Wall Street."
Chris Goldstein, a leading marijuana consumer and patient advocate in Philadelphia, worries that money-hungry businessmen could thrive in Pennsylvania's cannabis industry where, unlike some other states, the licenses are transferable and don't require applicants to reside in state.
"I call them the Wolves of Weed Street," Goldstein joked of businessmen potentially abusing a patient-centric industry. "The licenses themselves will be of value; just because they have one doesn't mean they'll put a shovel into the ground and actually use them."
Even with no concrete timeline for medical marijuana facilities opening in the state, lawyers and consultants are raking in money from entrepreneurs and investors hoping to secure these limited licenses.
Russ Cersosimo, director of strategic alliances for the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society, previously said that groups should expect to spend upwards of $1 million just to be in position to submit a competitive application when the time comes.
In some regards, this big money interest is needed to legitimize an industry that has been thriving on black-market dealings in the past. Ultimately, marijuana business growth is dependent on lawmakers changing the rules, and legislators have certainly shown a propensity to listen to money.
Scott Greiper, president of Veridian Capital Advisers, spoke as a panelist at the Philly conference on the importance of bringing professionalism into the industry.
"There are a lot of wackos in this space," he said. "Investors will run background checks on every team member, their friends and their families."
At the same time, Greiper stressed that the "core" of legalization is getting medicine in the hands of those who need it.
Leslie Bocskor, president of Electrum Partners, said at the conference that the culture and values behind the legalization movement serve as an underpinning for future decision-making.
"It's not always what makes the most money, but what's best for the people," Bocskor said.
And that's where the cannabis industry needs to be careful as it moves forward.
Advocates need the investors and shrewd businesspeople to move the legal process along and make marijuana more widely available. But as more money becomes available, more people interested in financial gain and less about the public good will look to enter the fold.
If the industry is to avoid such stigma as has become associated with Big Pharma, its current leaders must stay heavily involved and find that ideal balance.