In May 2015, Puerto Rican governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla signed an executive order legalizing medical marijuana in that state. The first medical marijuana dispensary opened seven months later, three days before his successor, Ricardo Roselló Nevares, was sworn in. By August of 2017, the island had 29 dispensaries, and marijuana was seen as a potential source of tax revenue that could help the island pay off its enormous $70 billion debt to the United States. Six weeks later, Hurricane Maria, the most devastating hurricane ever to hit Puerto Rico, pummeled the island.
The island was in tatters, including the marijuana industry, with crops destroyed and manufacturing facilities and dispensaries very badly damaged. Dispensaries received insurance payouts that were fractions of what they expected, and they were ineligible for federal government aid due to marijuana still being classified by the feds as an illicit substance. However, by the end of October, merely a month and a half after the storm, three-quarters of the dispensaries operational before Maria had reopened, writes Sarah Ratliff, an organic farmer and author living in Puerto Rico, for Merry Jane. Although many had limited supplies at the time of reopening, the industry, it seemed, was making a quick rebound. Ratliff also goes into interesting detail about the early days of medical marijuana legalization in Puerto Rico, as well as the recovery after the storm.
Keeping the cannabis flowing
One big advantage for Puerto Rican dispensaries was reciprocity agreements with other states that had legalized medical marijuana. That meant tourists from other parts of the country could get the marijuana they needed while in Puerto Rico. This was also true for the many volunteers who flew in from across the country to help with the rebuilding process. Still being able to access your cannabis while on vacation or doing humanitarian work was a definite draw.
One contractor told Ratliff “When my supervisor approached me and my guys about going down to Puerto Rico to get y’all’s lights back, along with not loving the idea of being away from my wife and kids for who knew how long, I made sure I could still use weed to treat my nerve pain and insomnia. I didn’t want to go back to using Gabapentin and Ambien, even temporarily. I hated what they did to me.”
Today, Puerto Rico’s marijuana industry is blossoming. As of November 2018, there were almost double the number of dispensaries open in Puerto Rico, at 54, then there was pre-Hurricane Maria. And on the anniversary of Maria, in September, the number of Puerto Ricans who had received medical marijuana cards was 34,000. Growers are still having problems in obtaining adequate supplies, and are still in recovery mode reports Ratliff, but dispensaries have expanded their inventories to carry a wider variety of edibles, capsules, vaping oils, waxes, suppositories, and topical applications. Puerto Rican dispensaries carry a wider variety of cannabis products than ever before. And this December, the fourth Puerto Rico CannaBiz conference was held right on schedule.
Puerto Rican dispensaries are still affected by problems unique to the island, like poverty and the crippling debt to the United States, as well as problems felt by dispensaries everywhere, like a limited access to the banking system, but despite these obstacles they appear to be flourishing post-Maria, and with more and bigger dispensaries opening, and more people getting medical marijuana cards, the future looks bright.