“This is a very sexy industry. When something this sexy happens, the circus comes to town.”
It’s mid-July in Boca Raton, Florida, and the founder of marijuana-consulting agency MedMen is halfway through a speech educating 150 potential ganjapreneurs at a conference called CannaEd. Pacing back and forth in front of an emerald green curtain, Adam Bierman waxes lyrical about the brave new world of investing in medical marijuana. “The biggest players in the state are gonna play this game,” he says, referring to the billionaires who have already expressed interest in the Sunshine State’s prospective legal pot industry. “If you wanna play—they’re starting. They’re starting now.”
According to a new poll from Quinnipiac University, they should be. Medical marijuana is not yet legal in the state, but it will come to a vote in November, and of the 1,251 Florida residents Quinnipiac surveyed, 88 percent said they support its use. That’s good news for money-hungry Florida execs who’ve been eyeing the green rush on the West Coast with envy. But Florida’s medical marijuana law may come with extremely strict provisions, and half-baked dreams of a pot empire won’t be enough to win a license. The race to become one of Florida’s medical marijuana moguls is more a survival of the luckiest than the fittest.
The bill itself, called the Florida Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative, Amendment 2, proposes to use a fiercely competitive system of “merit-based” criteria for approving licenses. It’s something used by just four of the 23 U.S. states where medical marijuana is legal. In some states, such as Nevada, the system has worked well—ensuring that only the highest-caliber businesses open and operate in the state. But in others, such as Illinois, which plans to offer only 21 licenses statewide, some residents who say they need the drug may not gain access to it.
Some of the criteria used in “merit-based” medical marijuana licensing, such as adequate capital and business savvy, are rational. Some aren’t. In Nevada’s application process, for example, using blue ink instead of black is enough to disqualify you. Winning a game this tricky, then, is nearly impossible without a coach. Enter MedMen.
Toward the end of Bierman’s speech at CannaEd, he tells his audience that a day earlier he met with a well-known Florida billionaire who is already prepping his business for the possibility of a new venture in the medical marijuana industry. “Where does this leave you?” Bierman says. “It leaves you vulnerable to the circus.” That “circus” Bierman is referring to is the lobbyists, con artists, and amateur growers who will soon swoop in to try to suck money from these high-earners with promises of getting them approved for a license. The truth is, Bierman says, hardly anyone in this group will win one, no matter what they do. If five of the 150 at the conference get approval, Bierman says he will be surprised. Jumping into the legal pot industry, then, isn’t just expensive—some states charge upward of $250,000 for application fees alone—it’s hugely risky.
So why are so many wealthy Florida business owners lining up to roll the dice? One answer—senior citizens.
“Seniors benefit most, more than any other population, from medical cannabis,” Sue Taylor, another speaker at the CannaEd conference in Boca Raton, tells the crowd. “Cannabis helps their ailments more than any other known population. It’s a fact.” While Taylor, a retired Catholic school principal and grandmother of three who travels the country educating seniors about legalization, now supports medical marijuana and even advocates for it, she understands why most seniors don’t. “We were taught with Reefer Madness that it was a hard-core drug and we should veer away from it,” she says.
That conversion is something Florida resident Tom Quigley, the man behind the CannaEd conference, understands well. It wasn’t until after Quigley’s own experience using cannabis to cope with the painful aftermath of a serious surgery that he became a believer in its ability to heal. A former CEO of Krush Communications, a company that offered prepaid calling cards, he launched a membership-based group called Florida’s Cannabis Coalition to “educate, motivate, and consult” potential players in the medical marijuana industry.
With yearly membership ranging from $100 to $5,000, members get access to a variety of events, conferences, meetups, and networking opportunities. As of today, the coalition boasts more than 500 members. From educational forums such as CannaEd to business planning sessions with names like “CannaBiz,” Quigley says he strives to integrate medical marijuana success stories into people’s budding business plans. “We attract people looking at dollar signs, but we bring stories to light,” he tells The Daily Beast. “The importance of what we’re doing is education. This is a social revolution that’s being fueled by business and economic change.”
While Quigley works with aspiring ganjapreneurs in Florida every day, he says the steep competition means none of them will come forward to share their secrets. But from dispensaries to food, he says Florida is likely to host a booming pot business if the amendment does pass. “Everyone wants to open up their own grow [facility] and dispensary, of course, but we’re also finding people who have ideas for ancillary products, like transportation or clothing lines.”
If the bill does pass and the Sunshine State’s ganjapreneurs bring their A-game, there’s potential for an extremely lucrative industry. With a population of roughly 19 million in Florida, Quigley says that close to 500,000 residents would be eligible for medical marijuana right away. The majority of them would be seniors. “We’re really striving to get the patients in Florida, especially the seniors, to understand it,” says Quigley. “To do so we’ve got to get rid of the old connotations surrounding pot.” The easiest way? A quick name change. “It’s ‘cannabis’ now,” he says.
Bierman, for one, has high hopes that ganjapreneurs in Florida and elsewhere will help show Americans the value of this industry. That ambition is the driving force behind MedMen, which offers everything from a stylish dispensary guidebook to a budtender training course. “We play the game,” he tells The Daily Beast, of helping business owners prepare their applications. “The states ask you to play a certain game—they want you to check boxes off. So we help them do that, we play the game.”