Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico last month, causing at least 36 deaths and over $100 billion in damages to residents and businesses. The hurricane also stopped the territory's fledgling medical cannabis industry in its tracks, causing millions of dollars in damages, which some businesses may not be able to recover from. “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.”
“All the greenhouses were blown away,” Walter Melendez, Puerto Rico-based attorney with cannabis law firm Hoban Law Group, said. “They don’t exist. We lost it all.” Every outdoor cannabis cultivation facility was destroyed in the storm, but 8 or 9 indoor grow-ops survived. Forty percent of the island's residents have no access to running water, and 95% have no electricity, so these surviving cultivators are currently forced to use gas generators and water tanks to care for their plants.
“In the middle of Puerto Rico, around the mountains, it’s like a bomb exploded,” Melendez said. “There’s no way to get us electricity. If they don’t get the electricity back, [medical cannabis businesses] will have to stop. The demand won’t sustain it. There will be a shortage.” Melendez added that he only expects 3 to 6 cultivators to be able to survive the damage. “Only the people with large pockets will survive this year,” he predicted.
The hurricane couldn't have come at a worse time for the territory's medical cannabis industry, which only began operating this January. There are currently 12,000 registered medical cannabis patients, and experts believed that the market could reach 100,000 patients this year. It has been estimated that it will take a whole year to fully restore water, power, and communications to the territory, and these delays may cripple the MMJ industry before it even had a chance to get off the ground.
Nineteen of the territory's 29 dispensaries are currently operating, despite not having electricity. Melendez said that there is one brand of flower and one brand of oil for sale, but not enough of either to meet the demand of 12,000 MMJ patients. The Puerto Rico Department of Health has issued an emergency order allowing any patient to purchase medical cannabis at any dispensary, rather than just the one at which they are registered.
The Puerto Rican government has also designated the medical cannabis industry as a priority for aid, just behind major priorities like hospitals. “The government really did step up in a time of crisis,” Vergne said. “It definitely gives me more confidence that they’re going to work with us to make the industry work.”