Puerto Rico Betting on Medical Marijuana

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Puerto Rico is facing billions of dollars in budget cuts, a public debt load of more than $70 billion and a declining population as people flee to the mainland seeking better opportunities. But people are betting that the new cannabis industry can revert the situation. Juan Manuel Rodriguez, an investor at Natural Ventures inspects marijuana plants in a bloom room in Caguas, Puerto Rico, last month. Investors in Puerto Rico have spent more than $3 million to obtain licenses issued by the island’s health department to cultivate, manufacture and sell medical marijuana.

Jesus Aponte pushes a door open to reveal hundreds of aromatic, spiky green plants, a crop that Puerto Rico hopes will help it ease a grinding economic crisis by generating millions in revenue and tens of thousands of jobs.

Aponte, a 29-year-old biologist and chemical engineer, had been thinking of joining the wave of young Puerto Rican professionals heading to the U.S. to seek work — an exodus that has aggravated the U.S. territory’s woes. But then he saw the saw the island’s medical marijuana industry start to expand, and found one of the rare new jobs opening up on the island, overseeing some 2,000 plants at the Natural Ventures facility.

“This is an economic niche that we can grab on to,” he said, though he added, “A lot of people told me, ‘What are you doing with your life? You’re throwing away your future.’”

But like more than two dozen U.S. states, Puerto Rico is pinning a little of its future on the recently illegal drug.

The territory legalized medical marijuana by decree nearly two years ago and new Gov. Ricardo Rossello last month signed a measure that set out a legal framework for the industry. Backers say that will spark an expansion of the pot fields, manufacturing centers and dispensaries that have been popping up across the island.

“A lot of people were waiting for this law,” said attorney Goodwin Aldarondo, president of Puerto Rico Legal Marijuana, a consulting company. “It’s the only viable alternative we have to solve the economic situation. It’s been many, many years since Puerto Rico has had a new industry.”

For Narelis Cortes, the issue isn’t so much work as conquering pain.

She’s one of nearly 9,000 Puerto Ricans who have paid $25 a year for a permit to use medical marijuana to treat at least 14 preapproved conditions including HIV, cancer, multiple sclerosis, migraines, anxiety and epilepsy.

The 32-year-old mother and Air Force veteran said rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and the initial stages of Parkinson’s disease had kept her in bed for hours a day. She said she spends about $350 a month on medical marijuana. She vapes every four to six hours and has eliminated the need for 20 medications.

“I’m functional now,” she said.

The island’s treasury secretary says the medical marijuana industry could generate up to $100 million a year, in part through a sales and use tax, and help ease an unemployment rate that has hovered around 12 percent.

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