In Missouri’s fledgling medical cannabis industry, a mother and son hope to cultivate a tribute

Connie Hendren cradles a small black and white toy truck with “A.C. Ferrell Butane Gas Co.” written on the side.

“It was Dad’s,” she says.

The miniature butane truck sits on display in her living room in Rocheport, as if it were a prized possession. Her stepfather, Bob, helped raise Connie from the time she was a child. He was dedicated to his family and his job, working for the company, now Ferrellgas, for more than 20 years. Bob had an affinity for collecting toy trucks, and Connie’s mom collected bells. Connie still has one, from the 1982 World’s Fair they visited, sitting on an entryway table.

Connie inherited that love for collecting. Her home is a testament to that, decorated with memorabilia, particularly Star Wars, that she has gathered over the years with her own family. A kempt room on the first floor is dedicated to the film franchise — bedsheets, wallpaper, lunch boxes, cookie jars, R2-D2 cooler.

For Connie, these collections are memories in physical form. The truck and bell are pieces of her mother and father, but she wants to honor her parents in a new way — one that can help others in pain.

The last memory Connie has of her stepfather is his death in February, after an 18-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. The once healthy, hard-working man weighed a mere 117 pounds in his final days. Connie’s breath grows shallow as she remembers how the disease made Bob suffer. She had to watch him endure it all — the tremors, the loss of mobility and a period of hallucinations that forced him to move into a retirement home.

The Hendren home is dotted with heirlooms from Connie’s parents. Her stepdad, Bob, worked for Ferrellgas for 20 years. | Haiting Hu/Missouri Business Alert

It wasn’t the first time she witnessed disease overcome a loved one; her mother, Wanda, who had Alzheimer’s disease, died three years before. The dementia made Wanda paranoid, and she grew more delirious and untrusting when the sun went down.

When it got to the point that Wanda didn’t know where she was unless Bob was around, Connie spoke to her siblings in Seattle and Colorado about how medical marijuana could help her parents. She had read online that cannabis was being used in states where it was legal to aid Parkinson’s patients with their shakes and hallucinations, and to help Alzheimer’s patients with sundowners syndrome, the nighttime confusion Wanda was experiencing. Connie’s siblings suggested their parents move to live with them, in states where marijuana is both medically and recreationally legal, but Bob and Wanda declined because Missouri was their home.

“Near the end, both of my parents were just laying there, struggling to breathe,” Connie says with tears in her eyes.

From the time her mother and father were diagnosed with chronic illnesses, Connie had hoped Missouri would legalize medical marijuana.

Now, although not soon enough, Connie’s hopes are coming to fruition.

In November, Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 2, which allows state-licensed physicians to recommend marijuana for medical purposes to patients with serious illnesses and medical conditions, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) is in charge of the new program, and in January the department began collecting early medical marijuana license fees from those seeking to grow marijuana, produce cannabis products or sell them to certified patients.

At first, Connie was surprised that the conservative state was finally holding a public vote on the matter. Once the amendment passed, she knew she wanted to be a part of medical marijuana in Missouri. In a way, her involvement is a testament to the pain she saw her parents go through in their final stages.

“Even if it’s going to be too late for mine, there’s thousands of other Missourians out there who can benefit,” Connie says.

Growing and giving
Connie Hendren believes her mom, who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, and stepdad, who had Parkinson’s Disease, would have benefitted from access to medical marijuana late in their lives. | Haiting Hu/Missouri Business Alert

Perched at the top of a hill, Connie’s ranch home sits on 200 acres of rolling green fields. It’s tucked away, miles from nosey neighbors, with its own private gravel road that announces the arrival of any curious visitors. Connie and her husband, Jim, built the property nearly 30 years ago. The vast landscape stretches to the skyline; it’s untouched except for the area where Connie, 69, likes to grow fruits and vegetables.

She has been retired since 2008 after a 16-year stint as Boone County Public Administrator. For years, she acted as a guardian or conservator for people with mental illnesses and disabilities who did not have family to act on their behalf. It’s a job that requires selflessness and patience. Connie’s a natural caretaker, and her farm is another way to give back — she donates the surplus fruits and vegetables from the garden she cultivates to local food banks.

Now, Connie and her family are working on a new way to utilize their farm for the benefit of others. She is teaming up with her son, Luke, along with some help from her husband, in hopes of starting an outdoor growing operation for medical marijuana.

It was Luke, 35, who first told his mother about the medical marijuana initiative on the ballot; after learning about it himself, he had started researching ways to get involved immediately. When voters approved the amendment, the Hendrens started attending public forums around the state to learn more about the industry. A lot of the concerns they heard at the sessions were about access to cannabis for low-income patients. So, the family decided they would use part of their farm to grow medical marijuana outdoors.

“Even though that’s a once-a-year crop, it’s for a much lower cost and has less environmental impact,” Connie says of growing cannabis outdoors. “I hope that by starting with a lower-cost product, we can actually move that all the way to the end and have that available for low-income individuals, but we need a whole network.”

DHSS has announced that it will enable patients to indicate low-income status on the state-issued cards that will be used to purchase marijuana. Dispensaries, in turn, will have the ability to offer discounts to low-income customers. Connie and Luke intend to provide their products through a network of dispensaries and manufacturers that will cater to those patients.

Luke Hendren paces the plot of land on his family’s farm where he plans to cultivate cannabis. He took an immediate interest in the state’s nascent medical marijuana industry. | Haiting Hu/Missouri Business Alert

With a slight twang she inherited from her time growing up in Moberly and greying hair, Connie evokes the image of a loving grandmother. She isn’t the prototypical medical marijuana entrepreneur. But, keeping her parents in mind, she feels growing cannabis is an opportunity to help other families ease the pain of what she went through.

“It just got to a point where I said, ‘I just don’t understand,’” Connie says. “When you look at all the things that are allowed in pharmaceuticals versus allowing a natural plant, it’s disappointing. But at least we’re here.”

Waiting game

Federally recognized studies on the use of marijuana for medical purposes have yet to be conducted because the government still recognizes it as a Schedule I controlled substance, rather than a medicine. It has a history of medical controversy, and federal regulations make it difficult to study the benefits.

Dr. Randall Williams, DHSS director, was a practicing physician for 30 years and now oversees the new medical marijuana program. Although the Missouri State Medical Association opposed the ballot initiative that legalized medical marijuana in the state, Williams says he doesn’t feel conflicted about his role.

“I think there is a healthy debate among clinicians as to marijuana’s risks and benefits,” Williams says. “We know it’s an addicting drug; one out of 10 people who use it habitually will become addicted. On the other hand, while there’s not a lot of evidence, there are certainly physicians in Missouri who’ve reached out to us and think that, in their experience, it benefits some patients, such as those with cancer, intractable seizures, glaucoma and other conditions.”

Studies suggest marijuana can be used for nausea and loss of appetite, reducing pain and inflammation, Parkinson’s disease, PTSD and more. But a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found little evidence for marijuana’s ability to treat health conditions aside from chronic pain, nausea and vomiting as a result of chemotherapy, and multiple sclerosis spasticity symptoms.

More and more states are choosing to ignore the federal government’s disapproval, with Missouri being the 32nd state to legalize medical marijuana. The constitutional amendment lists several conditions that will qualify patients for medical marijuana, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer and epilepsy. It also says doctors can add others, at the discretion of the state health department.

Luke Hendren showcases a greenhouse on his family’s farm. Despite uncertainty about the Hendrens’ prospect of getting state approval to cultivate marijuana, he has begun formulating detailed plans. | Haiting Hu/Missouri Business Alert

The state began collecting pre-filed application form fees in January and had already received 543 forms and more than $3.8 million as of June 11. Connie and Luke’s initial grower fees were $10,000. If they are approved to grow cannabis, the Hendrens must prepare to pay $25,000 a year. DHSS will begin collecting application licenses in August, but Connie and Luke won’t know if their business will be approved until the end of December.

Despite the family’s efforts, results are not guaranteed. Until their application is approved and processed, it’s a bit of a waiting game, but Connie says the uncertainty doesn’t faze them.

“As farmers, we pretty much live that way,” she says. “Every year when you put out your crop, you’re taking a gamble. So it’s something we’ve always lived with, I guess. Some things work out, and some years not so much.”

In the meantime, they are planning every aspect of their potential business, Blooms 4 Meds, which is already registered with the state as an LLC.

A complicated road ahead

Luke’s knowledge of the medical marijuana industry and organic farming is extensive, and the more he speaks about his business plans, the more excited he gets.

“I already have markers out in one of our fields for where fencing will go up,” Luke says. “It’s closest to one of our ponds for natural irrigation so our water impact in the municipal system will be zero and it will all be available naturally. Since it’s an outdoor grow, the power usage will be almost nothing, basically just processing equipment and tractors.”

Connie Hendren says her family’s experience as farmers has prepared them for the uncertainty of the state licensing process. | Haiting Hu/Missouri Business Alert

The mother and son realize they have their work cut out for them. Applicants will need to submit detailed information about their organization, business plan and proposed facility, as well as background checks and fingerprint records for all employees. The state’s rules require tracking systems to monitor every marijuana plant from seed until it’s consumed or destroyed. Growers will have to record the beginning and ending inventory of their seeds, in grams, on a daily basis. Security requirements include 24-hour video surveillance of every entrance and exit, point of sale, vault or safe and all marijuana — from two different angles. Outdoor cultivation facilities will be required to have two tiers of fencing, including one that’s 8 feet tall and topped with razor wire.

“The state is making it very difficult for outdoor growers,” Luke says.

Missouri says that cultivators will have to produce a crop every 120 days, which is nearly impossible for an outdoor harvest. So, Connie and Luke plan to build an earth-sheltered greenhouse that will maximize sunlight. They’ve received a proposal for insurance, security and fencing but aren’t making any decisions until the time comes.

“Once the issue is licensed, then we can start construction on putting up the new greenhouse, and then the state has to come and do a certification visit to begin operations,” Luke says. “We won’t be able to plant the fields ’til April.”

Luke’s muddy boots kick up wet grass and a grey overcast hangs above his head as he walks the length of the planned marijuana field, describing his vision. For him, the operation is like a family heirloom, similar to the collectibles that decorate the Hendrens’ home.

“A lot of people include exit strategies in their business plan, but that’s not my goal,” Luke says. “I want to do this for the rest of my life. … I have the patients in mind, and there’s too many people I know that need this help.”

Watching her son pace the plot where she envisions marijuana plants growing in a year’s time, Connie lets out a sigh. She now has a new passion — one she hopes will both honor her parents and provide relief for patients and their families across Missouri.

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