The Category 4 hurricane nearly wiped out the island’s budding medical marijuana industry, which had just launched earlier this year.
Hurricane Maria plowed through Puerto Rico last month, causing a reported 45 deaths and an estimated $100 billion in structural damage. Making landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, the powerful Category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds also devastated the territory’s budding medical marijuana industry, causing millions of dollars in damages and destroying some businesses completely.
“It was like nothing I could ever imagine,” said Javier Vergne, CEO of Encanto Giving Tree Wellness Center.” It plowed right through the middle of the island, and really nothing was spared.”
Puerto Rico legalized the cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution of medical marijuana in early 2015, and medical dispensaries opened their doors to patients this past January. Since then, businesses have seen steady growth. Before Hurricane Maria’s devastation, industry experts predicted the territory’s medical marijuana market could reach 100,000 patients.
Three weeks after the hurricane, 19 of Puerto Rico’s 29 dispensaries are operating with the assistance of water tanks to care for plants and generators for power, although gasoline supply is limited. The patients who are can access them are still buying cannabis. The territory’s indoor marijuana facilities sustained extensive damage, although eight or nine made it through. None of the outdoor marijuana cultivation facilities survived.
“All the greenhouses were blown away,” said Walter Melendez, a Puerto Rico-based attorney. “They don’t exist. We lost it all.”
Ninety-five percent of the island’s 3.4 million residents still have no electricity, and 40 percent are without running water. Projections say it could take up to a year to restore electricity, water and telecommunications to Puerto Rico.
“If they don’t get the electricity back, the [medical marijuana businesses] will have to stop,” said Melendez. “The demand won’t sustain it. There will be a shortage.”
“Only the people with large pockets will survive this year,” he added.
One piece of positive news for Puerto Rico’s medical cannabis industry – the government has designated the medical marijuana industry as a priority for aid, just behind hospitals and other top-tier priorities. The Puerto Rico Department of Health has also issued an emergency order permitting medical marijuana patients to temporarily purchase cannabis from any dispensary instead of being limited to the one where they are registered.
“The government really did step up in a time of crisis,” said Vergne. “It definitely gives me more confidence that they’re going to work with us to make the industry work.”
“It’s a pretty devastating blow when you lose what you’ve been building over a year,” Vergne added, “but when you look at what other people have lost, it’s nothing.”
Puerto Rico’s medical marijuana law – the Law to Improve the Study, Development, and Research of Cannabis for Innovation, Applicable Norms and Limits (MEDICINAL Law) – gives qualified patients legal access to non-smokable marijuana products like pills, patches, oral drops, and creams. It designates multiple sclerosis, HIV and AIDS, glaucoma, Alzheimer’s disease, migraines, Parkinson’s disease, and other illnesses unresponsive to traditional medicine, as conditions that qualify for medical marijuana.