MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — What’s being described as “the first informational marijuana industry seminar in West Virginia” probably won’t look much like the stereotype long associated with the drug’s turbulent history in the United States.
“Let’s put it in perspective,” Michael Patterson, CEO of U.S. Cannabis Pharmaceutical Research and Development, said Thursday to WAJR-AM. “This is a business. We need to make sure it’s run well, and we need to make sure people do it for the right reasons. That’s why we’re here.”
Patterson, a 23-year healthcare executive with a background as the COO of Avante Group, Inc., will speak to at least 85 people Saturday in what he and associate Russell Cersosimo are describing as “the ground floor” of the medical cannabis industry in West Virginia.
“This is the only time in history where West Virginia is going to legalize medical marijuana or medical cannabis,” he said. “What we try to tell people about opportunity: this is the only time in history you can get a job in this industry with no experience.”
Cersosimo, Founder of the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society, said West Virginia took an important first step when the Legislature legalized medical cannabinoids earlier this year. But, he added, the industry isn’t simply going to spring to life without help. Patterson echoed a similar sentiment.
“We’re also going to go very hard in depth into the state law that was just passed, and explain it section by section to allow people to understand where they can fit in all of this,” Patterson said.
Cersosimo said skeptical residents can, essentially, throw out traditional stereotypes. Marijuana will still be a Schedule I narcotic — and West Virginia’s law, similar to Pennsylvania’s, doesn’t permit smoking marijuana as a form of treatment.
“When people hear marijuana or cannabis is coming to town, they think obviously what they know from the reefer madness campaigns,” he said. “People are smoking it, and it’s making people crazy and what not. And that’s absolutely not the case. In this particular case, everything is going to have to be extracted and processed into actual medicine.”
Cersosimo and Patterson both used the same word repeatedly; this is medicine.
“You won’t be seeing people smoking marijuana on the street,” Cersosimo said.
And because of it’s status as medicine, they both agreed the business model will need to reflect that throughout the state.
“You’re not going to have this out in the open,” Patterson said. “It’s not going to be seen. The processors are basically going to take that product, and they are going to make it into oils, and gels, and topicals. They’ll make it into oils for the vaporizer cartridges and things like that.”
Nor, Patterson said, can you expect to see a new boom in “head shops.” Rather, the dispensaries will probably look like “a boring pharmacy.”
“The stores will be storefronts,” he said. “They’ll be small storefronts — maybe 1,500 square feet. They’re not huge.”
But that’s the end game, and getting there is going to take some work.
“West Virginia decided to change, and so we’re coming in to help West Virginians,” Patterson said. “This system is not going to work without West Virginians stepping out of their comfort zone and be able to come into this new industry. The Legislature and the advocates have done their job. Now it’s time for the business people and the entrepreneurs to get together and do this the right way.”
The right way means, first, educating anyone interested on what the law actually allows, Patterson said. Only 50 licenses will be available throughout the state to start. 10 growers, 10 processors, and 30 dispensaries will make up West Virginia’s medical cannabis industry when applications for licensure become available either late this year or early in 2018.
“You need a team to do this,” Patterson said. “You can’t have one guy to do this. You need a lot of people from a lot of different walks of life.”
That team will include accountants, public relations experts, general contractors — essentially what any other business would need to thrive in new terrain.
“Once people get past the hysteria and the mystique of the plant, it’s just a plant,” Patterson said.
A plant with both medical and practical benefits, Cersosimo said. He estimates the new industry could create 1,000 new jobs in three and a half years throughout the entire state. He expects West Virginians to feel the medical benefits before they feel the economic benefits.
“In states where medical cannabis has become legal as an option, the opioid prescription overdose death rate has gone down by 25 percent,” he said.
Getting to that point, again, still won’t be a trip without some bumps and bruises along the way. Understanding some of the regulations will be key, Cersosimo said.
Each dispensary will be required to have a full-time pharmacist on site. Additionally, dispensaries will need to be split among three zones in the state — with no fewer than five in each zone. Teams looking to start their own operation will be required to pay a $5,000 application fee, a one-time fee of $50,000, and a yearly fee of $5,000. But Cersosimo, who is going to help launch a West Virginia chapter as a sister to the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society, said those fees are far less than what would be required in Pennsylvania — $2 million in capital and $500,000 in cash on hand.
“It’ll be pretty competitive at that,” he said. “It’ll be a lot closer to the Maryland program, so we would expect to see a lot of applicants.”
Those expected bumps and bruises are also likely to lead to changes to the law. Cersosimo said other states on the east coast have been tweaking their laws over the past several years in their Legislatures — whether that means increasing the amount of dispensaries allowed to operate in the state or increasing the number of licenses.
Patterson said the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board, a 13-person commission made up of physicians, pharmacists, horticulturalists, patient advocates, law enforcement, and social workers, will play a vital role in that process of tweaks at the legislative level.
“One of the tweaks is dealing with the doctors and being able to allow more doctors to come on,” Patterson said. “Typically what we see, a choke point in this system may be whether the doctor’s are willing to sign up for the program, and we’ve seen that in other states.”
At the moment, it’s that board that is still determining rules and regulations to fully implement the Medical Cannabis Act. Their time frame for full implementation is unclear, but the Department of Health and Human Resources will not begin issuing patient and caregiver ID cards to obtain medical cannabis until July 1, 2019.
“That’s one of the reasons we want to come in now,” Patterson said. “The regulations are going to come out around the end of December, the beginning of January. Once those come out, the race will be on cause typically they are going to say when they are going to release the applications. You need six months to a year, if you have it, to get a good team together. Once you have that license, it becomes of extreme value because the state’s not giving any more.”
Another obstacle that doesn’t seem to have a clear-cut resolution is marijuana’s designation federally as a Schedule I narcotic. Because of this, Cersosimo says there are still question marks about the easiest way to get legal, medical cannabis into the hands of veterans who could benefit from the drug.
“They’re not giving the VA access to it as a benefit, but we think that’s going to be coming around,” he said.
Registration for the informational seminar begins Saturday at 8 a.m. at the Morgantown Marriott at Waterfront Place.