Perched high above Old City in Philadelphia, one dozen smartly dressed professionals sat in a conference room Tuesday morning learning about medical marijuana.
The cohort represented a diverse gathering of interests - from technology to pharmaceuticals - all with the same goal: to cash in on what experts predict will soon be a multibillion dollar industry.
“What do Dutch sailing vessels and BMW have in common?” asked Jahan Marcu, senior scientist at Americans for Safe Access (ASA) and Temple University graduate.
“Cannabis,” someone answered.
“Right!” Marcu replied, going on to explain that cannabis has been used for centuries to make fabrics, treat pain and boost appetites.
Indeed, BMW used pressed hemp as a wood alternative for its electric car, the i83, that debuted in 2014. And the Vikings preferred hemp sails because the tough fabric withstood salt water better than cotton or other materials.
“Hemp is still used to this day to make textiles … but other parts of the plant have different uses,” Marcu concluded.
Those other uses are what attracted this group to Tuesday’s gathering hosted by ASA, a D.C.-based advocacy group that advances medical marijuana research and therapeutics through government policy, quality control and consumer safety.
For the rest of the week, people interested in entering Pennsylvania's nascent cannabis program will participate in intensive training sessions geared towards growers, manufacturers, retailers and regulators.
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Led by Marcu, Tuesday's workshop looked more like a corporate training session than a gathering of cannabis enthusiasts.
The professional tone, complete with workbooks and PowerPoint presentations, spoke to the future of weed in coming years. Once dismissed as the province of hippies and stoners, cannabis is quickly becoming big business that will generate billions as more states adopt medical marijuana programs or legalize recreational pot.
A recent report by Arcview Market Research found that regulated pot sales in North America totaled $6.9 billion in 2016. Sales are projected to increase to about $21.6 billion by 2021.
“Cannabis is set to overcome any regulation that is passed,” Marcu said. “It is a versatile plant that is basically non-toxic.”
Despite the apparent green rush, the Drug Enforcement Administration refused to reclassify marijuana last year. It is still considered a Schedule I drug with no medical properties, akin to heroin or cocaine in the eyes of the federal government. This battle between the federal government and weed-friendly states has not prevented business-savvy individuals from dipping their toes into the blossoming industry, which is slated to take off in Pennsylvania in 2018 under a recently adopted medical marijuana program.
The program will accept applications from February 20 until March 20 for cultivators, shop owners and everything in between. Those attending ASA’s training program said they want to enter into the industry efficiently and intelligently.
This includes Daniel Kearns, 32-year-old engineer whose partners are applying for a license in the south central zone of the state, which includes York and Harrisburg.
“We saw the legislation being written and it seems like a lot of people in this industry are not doing it the right way,” he said. “When you say ‘medicine’ there are a lot of quotation marks.”
Kearns said his partners are committed to entering medical marijuana in the “right way.” That includes learning the intricacies of state regulation, biological compounds of cannabis and best practices for dispensing medication.
“We’re doing the research and making sure all the products we make really are in line with what the science is saying,” he said.
Born in South Korea and raised in central Pennsylvania, Kearns said he was prescribed opioids for pain following surgery and Ambien for sleeplessness. Both came with unwanted side effects that felt too harsh compared to the symptoms they were supposed to be treating.
Regular visits to Colorado, which legalized recreational pot in 2012, convinced Kearns that cannabis was more effective and less dangerous than prescription pills.
Attendee Scott Shank arrived at a similar conclusion through his own experiences with heavy medication.
Like other converts, Shank has witnessed the dangers of opioid use and addiction. When he was just 14 years old, he spent several weeks in the hospital on a morphine drip following a motorcycle accident. Almost immediately, addiction kicked in.
“I can remember my blood itching,” Shank said.
His mother, a nurse, saw what was happening to her son and helped wean him off the medication. Since then, Shank continued to experience chronic back and joint pain from football injuries and a car accident later in the life. He swore to never go back to opioids, and even convinced his mom to soften her stance on medical marijuana.
"She came around once I showed her the research," he said.
The company he represents, AgriMed Industries, already operates in Puerto Rico and has seen rapid growth as part of their medicinal model.
And that is what convinced Shank to enter the cannabis industry, he said.
“I wanted to serve humanity, help people who are suffering,” said the former military security systems specialist.
Shank admits that jumping from the military to cannabis was ironic at best. He joked that several former colleagues “don’t approve of the transition, but there are others who think it’s cool and want to make the jump, as well.” [[238427591, C]]