As Missouri starts issuing medical marijuana licenses, aspiring entrepreneurs plan, hope

Katherine Nolting has worked in health care for over 30 years, but now, she is hoping to use that experience to break into Missouri’s new world of medical marijuana.

“We’re very passionate about the fact that you know, you don’t have to take a pill with all these side effects every day,” Nolting said. “I saw the end result of addiction, these people who had become addicted to opioids and other substances had lost their families, their freedom, their health.”

Nolting’s mission to find a solution went beyond her professional experience. Her friend who worked in construction fell off a roof and was prescribed pain medications. Nolting said within a year and a half, she became so addicted that she eventually died from an overdose.

Nolting began talking to her brother’s fiancé, Debra Monson, about the issue, and found they had similar passions for making a difference in the industry. This year, they submitted one of more than 1,200 applications to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Missouri. The state will issue fewer than 200 licenses to dispensary operators.

All told, 348 medical marijuana businesses of various kinds will be certified to operate in the state. The Department of Health and Senior Services has issued two batches of licenses — to testing facilities and transportation facilities — in the last week. The state plans four additional rounds of license announcements through the end of January, with dispensary licenses scheduled for approximately Jan. 24.

“Her having health care environment experience, me having regulatory experience, we thought it would be a good opportunity … to be able to try this endeavor,” Monson said.

Monson owns a drinking water facility and a wastewater treatment facility, both of which are licensed by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, so she has experience working with tight regulations, something she hopes will push their application to the top of the list.

If they don’t receive the license, Nolting and Monson will lose the $6,000 they paid for the application fee for a medical marijuana dispensary. Nolting said it was a lot of money, but she understood why it was necessary.

“It was a little frustrating to us in that, you know, that was a very large amount of money to not get any of it back if we’re turned down,” Nolting said. “It’s not a business that you need to go into if you’re not passionate about it, if you don’t believe in it, if you don’t have the financial fluidity to be able to get on board.”

Hear more: Katherine Nolting and Debra Monson on the Speaking Startup podcast

For Nolting, her passion is just as important in her work. In her 12 years working as a nurse in correctional facilities, she witnessed countless people imprisoned for opioid addictions, and others imprisoned for self-medicating with marijuana.

“A lot of people that I’ve met in the correctional environment, mostly inmates, have come to me and said, ‘You know what, (marijuana) needs to be legal. It needs to be out there as an alternative choice,’” Nolting said.

Nolting and Monson want to open a dispensary in Eldon, a town of around 4,600 people about 60 miles south of Columbia.

“I am hoping that looking at a holistic approach with alternative choices to the painkillers and opioids, and that with education, we can eventually change some of the attitudes towards that particular product or that particular choice,” Nolting said.

One organization has been working to do just that. Dan Viets is the executive director of NORML, a statewide advocacy group for the responsible, adult use of safe and affordable marijuana.

“There are a growing number of studies that have shown that deaths from opioid overdose reduces dramatically in jurisdictions where medical marijuana is available legally,” Viets said.

Viets said the decision by Missouri voters last November to legalize medical marijuana was a huge step toward reducing opioid deaths. He noted that prescription monitoring is often proposed as a solution to opioid deaths, since Missouri does not have a prescription monitoring program. But he said this solution doesn’t work.

“There is a tremendous body of evidence that medical marijuana reduces opioid overdose deaths,” Viets said. “It’s not the solution. There’s no single solution that’s going to solve everything. But I’ll tell you, it’s a hell of a lot more effective than prescription monitoring.”

Viets said the first battle has been won — medical marijuana has been legalized — but there is still a ways to go for more people to accept it as a norm.

“As people learn more about medical marijuana, its ability to relieve pain and suffering and seizures … it just doesn’t make any sense to deny it to people who are otherwise forced to resort to drugs like Oxycontin opioid drugs,” Viets said.

Progress toward legalizing marijuana — medical or recreational — has taken time in Missouri. In 2016 and again in 2018, measures to legalize some forms of medical marijuana failed in the state legislature. Even after it was legalized last year, Nolting has noticed barriers in her own business ventures.

“Missouri is very conservative, and cannabis is looked at as an illegal black market drug in a lot of arenas,” Nolting said. “I’ve not kept it a secret, but at the same time, I don’t go around broadcasting it because that education and knowledge and acceptance I think will come. I think that there’s so many benefits (of medical marijuana) that it’s going to change eventually.”

A majority of voters in Miller County approved the legalization of medical marijuana, but by a less decisive margin than in the state as a whole. | Naomi Klinge/Missouri Business Alert

In the 2018 midterms, nearly 66% of Missourians voted in favor of Amendment 2, which legalized medical marijuana and made it a constitutional right for those qualified in the state. In Miller County, where Eldon is located, 55% of voters approved the amendment.

Nolting and Monson said part of their business plan is to educate the Eldon community to build that support, and embed themselves as respected business owners.

“I believe that when we educate the community that will release some of the stigma that’s associated with marijuana as a whole,” Monson said.

Said Nolting: “We intend to go into the communities to educate them. We intend to go into the city hall meetings and say, ‘Hey, this is who we are. This is what we offer. Are there any questions?’ We want to, because we feel that we’re offering something that’s going to be a benefit to Missouri. And … the knowledge and the studies and the education that we’re hoping to be able to get out to the community, we’re hoping that helps change the attitude.”

Monson owns multiple businesses in Eldon, and her kids attended the local school district. She said she believes the community would be welcoming to their new business.

“Being in the community, having lived there for a while, I realized that the business community is a strong community, a tight-knit community that is interested in improving the lives of their residents,” Monson said. “It is a compassionate, caring town. I believe that they’ll be positive about change coming and alternate choice to medications.”

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