Everything You Need to Know About Medical Marijuana in Puerto Rico

Photo by Getty Images

Puerto Rico has been in the headlines lately for financial troubles that are leading the country towards the largest municipal bankruptcy in United States history. The island is on the hook for over $70 billion in debt and has no way to pay it.

Fortunately, the government has the option to nourish a new industry with medical marijuana. Unfortunately, it appears that they are putting up roadblocks at every turn.

The Puerto Rican government has not made the process of entering the medical marijuana field easy for anyone. Patients, tourists and business owners are all having trouble operating within the current system. Part of the issue may be a learning curve on the part of elected officials, but willful resistance and a lack of resources is also at play.

All combined, patients are the ones feeling the most pain.

There are over 4,000 registered patients in Puerto Rico, with 7,000 more awaiting their patient ID cards.

When I visited the Department of Cannabis (within the Puerto Rico Department of Health), there were no patients, no business owners and very little staff. Supposedly there is only one person and one machine for printing medical cannabis ID cards, making for a slow process.

As the CEO of Caribbean Green, a local dispensary, put it: “People are literally dying waiting for their patient cards.”

But the long wait for approval isn’t the only issue.

The first thing a patient has to do—as usual—is go to their doctor to get a recommendation for medical marijuana. Then, they have to go to a notary to get that recommendation certified. The twist here is the only people who are legally allowed to be notaries in Puerto Rico are lawyers. So, you have to go see a lawyer. Then, you have to take the certified recommendation to the Department of Cannabis, where they review your paperwork.

After the doctor, lawyer and the government office, then you have to wait and wait and wait and maybe go back to the Department of Cannabis to straighten something out or annoy the staff until they process your documents. When your card is ready, you have to go back to the office to pick it up.

All-in-all the cost is about $100-150, which can be a large upfront cost for a medicine you’re not even sure will work. Not only do you have the long process, wait and cost, but you also have to factor in the time—especially for those Puerto Ricans who do not live in San Juan.

Lab-tested medicine at Caribbean Green’s dispensary in Carolina, Puerto Rico. (Photo courtesy of Caribbean Green)

If you live in Mayagüez, on the west side of the island, then you have to drive the two-and-a-half hours or more to San Juan anytime you need to visit the Department of Cannabis.

“I’m trying to get a card for my dad,” explained Fernando Torres of Mayagüez, “but my dad has a couple of health issues that don’t let him travel far because of the pain and symptoms of his conditions.”

To make this a reality, Torres would have to take, at least, two days off from work to deal with the government on behalf of his father. This can be a significant hardship, especially if you do not own a car and have to rely on the limited transportation options between Mayagüez and San Juan.

Puerto Rico’s medical marijuana laws have a reciprocating agreement, where visitors to the island, who have medical marijuana recommendations in their home-state, can access cannabis through the island’s licensed dispensaries.

The only problem with that is—visitors have to go through a very similar process as the locals.

To get government approval, a tourist would have to bring their current recommendation to a Puerto Rican doctor, go to the notary/lawyer and present it to the Department of Cannabis in San Juan. The only difference between locals and tourists is that the visitor does not have to wait for the ID card.

So visiting patients do not have to wait months on end to get their card, but they still have to pay $100-150 to go through the process and spend a whole day of their vacation or business trip going to various offices.

A medical tourist from California checks out a weed plant growing in a trashcan in Isla Verde, Puerto Rico.

Now, let’s say you’ve jumped through all the hoops and have official medical marijuana approval from the government: You have to pick a dispensary—maybe before you ever lay eyes on one.

A patient is limited to one dispensary; they can only buy their medicine at that one business.

So, if you live in Mayagüez but happen to be on business in San Juan and run out of meds, then you will be out of luck until you get back to the area of your home dispensary. Or, if you sign up for one store and come to discover they don’t carry the medicine you need, you have to go to the government and ask to switch shops.

Once you have picked a shop and go in, the choices are somewhat limited and priced close to $80 an eighth. You have now spent around $200+ and two days of your life to get an eighth of medicine.

Due to the low patient numbers, little competition among businesses and the high costs of doing business in Puerto Rico, dispensaries cannot match the prices most of us in the U.S. are accustomed to. This is a hurdle for both patients and businesses—and like patient applications, business applications are stalled as well.

There are over 170 medical cannabis business applications waiting to be approved; 17 dispensaries have been approved since last fall.

Additional business licenses are a double-edged sword for the industry. On one hand, the more licenses you have, the more prices will come down and the more patients you will attract (Re: Econ 101: Supply and Demand). On the other hand, can the industry support the influx of businesses with such low patient numbers?

The first cannabis company in Puerto Rico to get licensed, Caribbean Green, epitomizes the problem.

Caribbean Green’s flowering room when it was full.

Caribbean Green boasts a large grow, one opened dispensary, a kitchen for making edibles and more patients than any other company on the island. They seem to have everything a business would need to start a thriving cannabis company. But being the first to get a license, also means they’re the first to encounter problems.

Caribbean Green has had to deal with traditional issues—like mold—coming in nontraditional forms.

According to the CEO of Caribbean Green, “there are something like 14 different types of mold that only live in Puerto Rico,” and the company has encountered a few of them. He said that several operators lost their entire initial crops to mold, leading a few to give up.

Fortunately for Caribbean Green and their patients, their master grower is experienced with these problems and—supported by lab testing—stays on top of any instances of mold. Local marijuana businesses have also had to deal with a less traditional problem in the weed industry: a lack of customers.

With around 30 patients a day, the grow that Caribbean Green built goes above and beyond the capacity needed to serve their client-base. They have two flower rooms built, each with about 90 lights, but when I visited, they were down to two or three tables in one of the rooms. The second room was completely empty.

How their flowering room looks currently.

The CEO explained that he was considering letting both rooms go dormant to do some cleaning and prep-work—and to give his growers a break. They just have too much weed (not truly possible) and now are sitting on a huge warehouse with rent, electricity, security and upkeep costs and no flowers being cut.

There was a rumor that one grow on the island had recently harvested 300 pounds and had nowhere to sell it—not good news for any licensed grows.

Aside from the mold and lack of patients, businesses also have to deal with high costs.

Electricity rates in Puerto Rico are more than double the average U.S. rate, and growing outdoors is not easy due to the mold and constant rain. Lab costs are around $1,200 per batch, as it’s required to test for everything from heavy-metals to terpenes.

Security is also a major expense, helping add to the cost of those $80 buds. Each grow needs to have two security guards, and each dispensary needs one. That is 24/7, highly-trained, highly-paid security, by the way. Caribbean Green says security is one of their largest expenses. With the economy in shambles and crime on the rise, security is a top concern in Puerto Rico—hence the scarcity of names appearing in this article.

Along with high costs and slow processes, both patients and businesses have to deal with government incompetence and ignorance. One of the weirdest examples of this is that businesses are allowed to sell traditional medical cannabis, you know flower/bud, but patients are NOT legally allowed to smoke it. They must vaporize it or turn it into another form.

Purple Wreck from Caribbean Green. (Photo courtesy of Caribbean Green)

Originally the government did not even want to allow flower to be sold—just oils, edibles and topicals. After some pressure and education, they relented, to some degree, but still were not convinced that smoking could be the best way of ingestion for certain patients. They fail to realize that many need to smoke cannabis to achieve the best results.

Representative María Milagros Charbonier, a member of the New Progressive Party, has been a consistent enemy of progress in the cannabis movement. She recently made renewed calls to ban the sale of buds and to move to a New York-style system only containing processed cannabis products. Charbonier said that weed cannot be dosed, and that it is never going to be medicine. She is stuck in the Reefer Madness mindset of the drug war, refusing to accept that some patients simply cannot get relief from edibles and topicals.

Those patients may be in so much pain that vaping, too, just isn’t strong enough to break through the torment. Many chemo patients have a hard enough time swallowing their prescribed pills, let alone a brownie or Rice Krispie treat. Some might need to juice raw marijuana, while others require the fast-acting relief that only smoked cannabis can achieve. Politicians, Charbonier, need to understand that cannabis-based medicine is back and here to stay.

Another example of the learning curve that advocates have had to battle is when the local Congress was given information about THC acid (THC-A), the main component of most cannabis flowers, which turns into THC when heated. When a speaker explained that THC acid is converted into THC when smoked, the official Twitter account of the Puerto Rican Senate interpreted it as users smoke acid (as in LSD) before smoking cannabis to achieve a greater high. Amazingly, the tweet has not been taken down.

We took a screenshot—just in case—and even shared our Google Translate skills with you.

This is the level of ignorance that the cannabis industry fights everyday.

On top of the lack of education, comes, what at best, could be called political grandstanding, or at worst, straight corruption.

One of the most prominent instances is the case of a dispensary that was approved, opened for business and then was subsequently shut down for failing a bogus “random inspection.” When the officials came for the inspection, they also happened to invite the local police and Puerto Rican press. Why anyone would invite the press to a “random inspection” is beyond comprehension. According to industry operators, the business fought for their license in court and have since reopened.

Then, there is the case of Caribbean Green’s first grow in the city of Guaynabo. It was approved and opened, but then later shut-down and forced to move with no clear reasoning given. Political insiders speculated that maybe the mayor of Guaynabo wanted the sole dispensary in his city to go to a family-member or friend? He is currently being investigated for sexual harassment and corruption, with the possibility of being removed from office soon.

Anyone who has paid close attention to cannabis, business or politics long enough has heard their fair share of shady shenanigans, but Puerto Rico’s cup seems to runneth over with political debauchery.

They have created a “hurry up and wait” system reminiscent of Kafka’s The Trial. A system, in which one patient explained he was excited to “not be afraid of getting busted,” but is “still buying underground,” presumably because it is easier to get and prices are lower on the black market.

As our recent 4/20 article on Puerto Rico revealed, there is a high demand for pot amongst the population. But if the government wants the cannabis industry to thrive and truly wants to help the sick patients of Puerto Rico, they need to focus on making access easier for patients.

Local medicating, while representing High Times, at one of El Yunque’s many waterfalls. (Photo courtesy of @dagseas)

That means more employees processing applications and more places for patients to submit and receive their paperwork. Or, better yet, legalize adult-use for anyone over the age of 18 or 21, removing the hassle of getting a patient ID card.

With Puerto Rico starting their arduous journey through bankruptcy, the government could see weed as the economic light at the end of the tunnel.

At the moment, though, they seem to be doing everything within their power to slow it. Whether it is through plain idiocy, corruption or lack of political will, the system is stalled and going nowhere fast. While what little progress the government has made with the cannabis industry is flawed, it is progress nonetheless.

Pa’lante Puerto Rico, pa’lante.

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