How to Get Rich in the Medical Marijuana Business (or Go Broke Trying)

Inside a conference room at a Sheraton Hotel in Miami, Bob Calkin paces in front of a small stage, holding a microphone. The 50-year-old Los Angeles cannabis hustler with '80s rock-band hair flies around the United States, charging folks $299 a head to learn how to make a fortune dealing po — sorry, "dispensing medicine." Before 9 o'clock on a Saturday morning, 150 wannabe marijuana barons have filed in for a ten-hour crash course put on by Calkin's company, Cannabis Career Institute. He's just raked in $45,000 for a day's work.
"If I was going to get a business license for my marijuana delivery service," he tells the audience suggestively, "I would not put 'marijuana delivery service' on the form. That is incriminating myself unnecessarily on a public document. I would jot down 'delivery of home health care products.' It's innocuous but honest."
Making it big in the weed biz is going to take more than converting Junior's bedroom into a greenhouse.
His talk hints at the weird world of the medical marijuana biz. Pot is still illegal at the federal level but legal as medicine in 21 states and as a recreational drug in two. Meanwhile county, city, and town governments are all struggling to regulate an industry that has suddenly transformed from outlaw venture to respectable business.
This November, Florida could become the 22nd state to legalize medical marijuana if more than 60 percent of voters approve an amendment to the state constitution. The ballot language removes state criminal penalties for patients who have a "debilitating medical condition," for their physicians and caregivers, and for any "medical marijuana treatment center" that registers with the state. The amendment specifies that the health department will have six months to set up regulations — including a definition of how much pot is an "adequate supply" of marijuana per patient — and nine months to start issuing patient identification cards.
A "debilitating medical condition" is defined in the amendment to include HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, Crohn's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, Parkinson's disease, and "other conditions for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient."
Assuming the amendment passes — and there's a good chance it will, as polls are clocking support between 64 and 78 percent of the vote — anyone who starts a medical marijuana business could make an astronomical amount of money. In Colorado, sales of medical marijuana were $328 million last year. In California, $1 billion. A study by Florida's Department of Revenue estimates that sales here would be $137 million to $5.6 billion a year.
Wannabe entrepreneurs are salivating. Calkin sold out three seminars and plans eight more from now until Election Day.
At the Miami event March 15, dolled-up women in business suits and designer handbags sat next to scraggly Rasta dudes with long dreadlocks. Lawyers, doctors, and bank officers shared space with general contractors, handymen, and guys like Dennis Vallardis, a sunburnt lobster fisherman fromKey Largo.
"I'm here to find out how I can make money and create jobs," Vallardis states.
Commercial real estate investor Mark Santiago, 42, says he'll open a medical marijuana business near Midtown Miami and claims to have an advantage — "decades of experience in the cultivation of high-end cannabis." He's already inked a deal with Calkin to be the institute's point man in South Florida. "I have eight figures in the bank," Santiago brags. "I'm ready to ramp up and run with the big dogs."
Then again, the whole anticipated pot boom could, in fact, be a bust. Much depends on how rules and regulations get structured at various levels of government. As history has shown in other states, there might be huge opportunities but also hurdles and pitfalls.
One thing is certain: Making it big in the weed biz is going to take more than converting Junior's bedroom into a greenhouse.
Step 1: Know your medical marijuana history.
Floridians only now have the chance to vote on medical marijuana because of one simple reason: money. It takes at least three to fourBrink's trucks stuffed with Benjamin Franklinsto successfully gather signatures of legitimate voters, place the measure on the ballot, and then get out the vote. California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996 thanks to six billionaires who bankrolled the $2 million campaign. Twenty more states have since joined the party.
People United for Medical Marijuana, Florida's largest pro-pot organization, was on its third try in early 2013. The group had collected only 31,193 signatures and needed 555,618 more. It would be impossible to meet the goal without a major cash infusion.
But People United had public opinion on its side. It commissioned a poll of 600 registered voters, and the results turned out to be mind-boggling. Seven out of ten Floridians — Democrats, Republicans, and Independents — supported legalization.
Ben Pollara, campaign manager for People United, flipped open his Rolodex. A Miami-based government consultant who'd advisedHillary Clinton and Barack ObamaPollaralanded on Chriss Morgan, a prominent Orlando-based trial lawyer who had bundled $672,000 for Obama's reelection.
"Ben showed me the poll results," Morgan says, his syrupy Kentucky drawl oozing through the phone line. "Seven out of ten. I like those odds."
Morgan tells New Times he supports medical marijuana because it helped relieve his quadriplegic brother's pain. "He'd have violent back spasms," Morgan recalls. "Marijuana was the only thing that worked for him." His late father, who suffered from cancer and emphysema, also used marijuana. "He was tethered to machines and on all these drugs that he had no appetite," Morgan says.
Morgan formed a new political action committee called United for Care and raised close to $5 million through his law firm and family members. The only other major donor is Coral Gables philanthropist and Democratic fundraiser Barbara A. Stiefel, who kicked in $250,000. Morgan became the face of the campaign with radio and television spots all over Florida.
Republicans allege that Morgan hijacked the medical marijuana initiative to help his high-profile employee, Charlie Crist, win back the governorship from Rick Scott.
"It's an issue that the Democrats can use to pump up the youth vote," Mike Patton,Gainesville-based Republican political consultant, told Businessweek. Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist backing Scott, called the medical marijuana initiative a "game changer" for the 2014 election.
Legendary flip-flopper Crist signed the Marijuana Growhouse Eradication Act into law when he was the Republican governor. Now, he is running as a Democrat and is all for medical marijuana.
Morgan vehemently denies using the medical marijuana issue to benefit Crist. "If that were the case, I'd just write Charlie a check and go home," Morgan says. "I am not Machiavellian, as some people make me out to be."
If the amendment passes, Morgan insists he'll leave the financial profit to everyone else. "But once it's legal, I'm done. I can't grow Philodendron, much less marijuana, so no — I won't be getting in the business."

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