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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Nearly 14 years ago, Corey Rimmel decided to turn cookies into cash, co-founding Hot Box Cookies, a cookie delivery service. But many of his customers were cannabis consumers and activists, something he says prompted his passion for the marijuana industry and encouraged him to open a dispensary instead.

After realizing baking was a bust, he said he tossed out the oven mitts and prepared to get baked in new ways. He now owns the Feel State dispensary in Midtown.

“Most people I’ve spoken to in the state of Missouri are for cannabis,” he said. “Are they for recreational with a dispensary on every street? I don’t know, that’s up for debate as it gets legalized, but for medicinal use, the majority of Republicans and Democrats are in favor.”

How many Missourians are legal cannabis consumers?

Missouri voters legalized medical marijuana by ballot measure in November of 2018, acquiring over $11 million in sales tax revenue from medical marijuana sales since sales began in October of 2020. Much of the funds, at least $8.5 million, poured into the Missouri Veterans Commission (MVC) as of May 16, a state agency designed to assist veterans in accessing their benefits, according to the Missouri Department of Revenue and the MVC.

Data from the Department of Health and Senior Services shows nearly 182,000 Missourians were approved and qualified for a medical marijuana card in the state by the end of May 2, with Jackson County reporting over 23,000 qualified residents, more than any other county in the state.

Cumulative marijuana sales reached over $289 million by April this year. According to Department of Revenue data, cumulative sales saw at least a 322% spike in just one month, between November and December 2020.

By May 2, the Department of Health and Senior Services reported nearly 182,000 qualified patients for a medical marijuana card in the state of Missouri. Jackson County has the highest number of qualified patients, over 23,000. St. Louis ranks second with 21,642 qualified patients.

Jericho Heese, director of marketing for Fresh Karma dispensaries in Midtown, said he’s seen a lot more patients at his store in recent months and believes stigmas associated with marijuana have died down.

“You’ve seen a lot more use, you’ve seen a lot more people getting those ailments and those benefits they needed daily,” Heese said.

Cannabis consumers agree the stigma surrounding marijuana has diminished, claiming the benefits outweigh those of pharmaceuticals.

“I don’t take my medication for my anxiety as much,” Christy Petrovick, customer at Greenlight Dispensary said. “That’s a good thing because that’s not the best, and I’ve just kind of replaced it and phased it out with marijuana.”

Despite how lucrative the industry has been in its infancy, competing products and prices on the black market have some cannabis consumers and business owners concerned that financial barriers may lead people down a slippery slope to unsafe and untested products.

“You can go and get an ounce of weed from the streets for $150, or you can come to a dispensary and you’re paying double that – $250, $300, up to $400 for an ounce,” said Andrew Ball, a customer at Greenlight Dispensary in south Kansas City.

“It’s kind of ridiculous.”

Competing for business

Dispensary owners are well aware of the impact illegal marijuana vendors have on their trade, but argue clean, quality cannabis will always outsell untested products distributed on the streets, even when sold at a lower cost.

“You no longer have to be scared, you no longer have to do things incorrectly, you no longer have to do those illegal purchases that weren’t tested, you don’t know what’s in that product, you can now feel safe and comfortable, can come get that knowledge from a friendly budtender, who is here and truly enjoys providing that medicine,” Heese said.

Even though dispensaries are confident in their blooming business, they acknowledge the hurdles black market sellers have posed for the trade.

“Ultimately, I would prefer, as a consumer, something that’s lab tested, you can see the percentages of cannabinoids and terpenes in there and you know where it was grown, by who, and you’re supporting a local company,” Rimmel said.

After Missouri legalized medical marijuana use in October, people of all ages, demographics, and backgrounds lined up outside dispensaries. The first in the Kansas City area opened in Lee’s Summit.

Patients say they are eager to spend the extra buck on cannabis products they can trust, as opposed to those sold on the black market containing potentially harmful substances and chemicals.

“It’s a safer alternative (than buying off the streets) and you feel good when you walk out, knowing that you’re a part of this project that they’re building upon,” James Kaske, customer at Greenlight Dispensary, said. “So, I really enjoy it.”

Medical marijuana sales provide patients a legal market capable of competing with its black market competitors, but still, dispensary owners say illegal sellers are a threat to the trade, with up to 80% of marijuana products still being sold on the black market today, according to John Mueller, CEO of Greenlight Dispensary.

“Missouri’s got about a billion dollars in black market that’s currently being sold today, and we’re a little over a $200 million operation,” Mueller said. “In this last year, right now, we’re tracking at about a $350 million operation, so we’re slowly cutting into the black market, and as we’ve seen across the state, those prices are dropping.”

“That will just keep eating into that black market product cause, at the end of the day, the patients, or customers in the black market want to be protected from all the things that are in their medicine, that are coming across the border or, quite frankly, coming out of states that are not regulating as well as Missouri.”

Rimmel said black market products, especially vape cartridges, may contain additives or mold, something he believes incentivizes cannabis consumers to purchase from a regulated marijuana vendor. This is despite the fact that the bud is taxed, sold at higher prices, and may contain a lower, more regulated dose of THC.

“A lot of people are first-time consumers or haven’t consumed in 20, 30 years, so their perception on cannabis is still stigma from the 70s, 80s,” Rimmel said.

“When people come in here, we’ll sit and talk with them for as long as they would like, and answer any of their questions, and really guide them through their cannabis experience.”

Educating on edibles

Heese said education is the most important aspect of a budtender, or dispensary employee’s, job. He said staff is rigorously trained in the benefits of medical marijuana and understanding which products can best cater to a customer’s needs.

“One thing that’s been very nice about Missouri is Missouri has some of the most rigorous cannabis testing in the nation,” he said.

“That’s allowed for a much cleaner, safer product in the end, and as long as that education is correct on the retail side when it’s getting to the patient, you know, that can ensure that the patient is not going to overdo something and be right where they want and make sure they’re feeling comfortable.”

Rimmel, however, said education is challenging because a lot of doctors didn’t learn about cannabis in school, making it difficult for staff to confidently advertise its product.

“Unfortunately, a lot of doctors didn’t learn about cannabis, so when they (patients) do get these medical cards, there’s no one telling them, ‘Hey, go to this specific dispensary and ask for this specific product,’” he said.

“So, that’s left on the dispensary employees and so we go through a lot of extensive training with our staff to teach them how to guide patients and, ultimately, we can’t tell someone, ‘Hey, take this gummy or smoke this flower and you will feel this way.’”

He said dispensary employees function as the retailer, and product advisor, but the majority of them do not obtain medical experience, creating hurdles for those who want to ensure the product they purchase is fit for them.

“Our best advice is just to experiment with multiple different varieties of cannabis and different ingestion methods, different ratios of CBD (cannabidiol) to THC and, you know, document your experiences in a journal and then come back and ask questions,” he said.

“That’s really the only way to figure out, and we always tell people to microdose and start really small with their dosages because we don’t want them to over-consume and have a bad experience and then give up on cannabis.”

Rimmel said it would be helpful if doctors would start researching cannabis and advising their patients on dosing and ingestion methods. He said this would help dispensary employees and patients weigh the medical benefits and disadvantages of certain products, as well as potential side effects.

“There’s a handful (of doctors) around the country that are pro-cannabis, but the vast majority of doctors do not really believe in the medicinal benefits because they just weren’t taught it in school,” he said. “It’s not their fault, it’s the system, the country we live in.”

Individuals interested in obtaining a medical marijuana card can visit the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to apply.