photo: iStock

The economic and social situation in Puerto Rico is problematic, but there is one industry that has the potential to save the small island nation from the impending crisis it faces. It’s a raw material that has been around forever and has infinite possibilities for use in areas like health and textiles; yet the potential of the cannabis industry has been largely ignored . . . until now. Attitudes are changing as every day professionals more seriously consider the cannabis industry. There is also a growing movement to push for legalization by none other than the governor, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, himself.

Before we consider whether legalization could really make a difference for the future of Puerto Rico, it’s best to check in on other states where cannabis has already been legalized. In Denver, CO, where legalization created a 700 million dollar industry within the first twelve months, tourism is booming, crime has decreased, and the enviable surplus has left the government wondering what to do with all that extra cash.

Related From Vivala: Cannabis: una nueva industria se asoma en Puerto Rico

There has been lots of discussion about the possibility of legalization in Puerto Rico, and there is organizing around the issue, but the movement is just beginning. Jailing someone for possession of cannabis is expensive (very expensive) for any government, much less one on the brink of an economic crisis. On top of that, the end result is normally the disruption of the accused’s life and a permanent legal record that will affect them disproportionately. For example, a person arrested for possession of cannabis considered to be for personal use could be sentenced to up to 5 years in prison, which costs the government of Puerto Rico $35,000 annually for a total of almost $200,000 for the length of the sentence. It’s way too much money, and it’s cash that the country does not have. In the end, the citizens of PR wind up picking up the tab with their taxpayer money. That is money that can and should be spent to improve necessary and essential services, like education.

Take the case of Jeremy Ruiz, who was sentenced to four years for possession of cannabis for personal consumption. The governor of Puerto Rico recently granted him a conditional pardon after just a little over a year in prison. The organization Free Juana, which fights to avoid prison sentences for those arrested for possession of marijuana, started the hashtag #freejeremy and celebrated the executive decision. In 2013, Project 517 was approved, which made possession of less than an ounce a minor offense for people over 21. Under this new legal system, punishment mainly involves a system of fines starting at $100 and possible referral to a rehab center. It important to note that this new system does not legalize or even decriminalize possession, but it does adjust the punishment to the crime more fairly in most cases. Either way, activists are pushing for more leniency when it comes to marijuana laws and are seeking no jail time for those in possession of anywhere from 18 to 24 grams.

The Department of Health of Puerto Rico presented a list of rules for the use, possession, cultivation, manufacture, production, manufacture, supply, distribution and research of cannabis for medical reasons just last December. It’s a decision that is considered hugely important, not just for the scientific community, but for the whole country. It is one step closer in the fight for the legalization of medical marijuana.

There have also been quite a few different conferences held around medical marijuana, not just for professionals invested in the topic like doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs but also for the public in general. Recently, Puerto Rico Legal Marijuana held their very first public seminar, “Understanding Legal Marijuana,” and organizations like Red Cannamédica de PR and Descriminalizacion.org have held various activities. This April, the Free Juana 420 Rally was held, featuring education around the topic as well as free live music and a march in support of legalization.

The growing movement is strongly supported by women who are organizing and see the legalization of cannabis as a solution to many of the problems plaguing Puerto Rico right now.

Related From Vivala: Changing Attitudes About Women and Marijuana

Gabriella Pagán, owner of Monticello smoke shop and activist.

photo: Daliana Alvarado

Gabriella “Gaby” Pagan, owner of Monticello Smoke Shop, became a de facto activist involved in many of these projects. “I decided to open a business without knowing what might happen. I wanted to sell these products, so I became very knowledgeable on the subject. People come with questions and I have to be prepared. So I decided to become a source of information and make this movement part of my business plan. You’re not just selling products; you’re selling a lifestyle. I’m in the business of making people happy and healthy,” says the excited 27-year-old.

This new avalanche of opportunities is what propels La Marimba, a Spanish-language digital publication, cofounded by Gaby that aims to provide information and education about what’s happening with legalization, not just in Puerto Rico but around the world. “La Marimba is not just an ode to the benefits of marijuana, it keeps people informed about important themes and topics with the input and opinions from experts,” Pagan clarifies.

Gaby and Grace Vanessa Lazo (another PR-based cannabis activist) recently attended Women Grow Leadership Summit to this past February in Denver, CO. The three-day event aims to unite women from all over the U.S. and presents over 75 seminars by experts in the field. This was the first year any women from PR attended.

“It’s a new industry dominated by women. We went to Denver to learn as much as we could, and Puerto Rico caused a sensation, we were the most “international” group in attendance. We also had the opportunity to participate in the VIP Meet and Greet, which was a networking space where you could get up to speed on all the latest happenings. Amy Dawn Bourlon-Hilterbran, another activist, invited us and we had the chance to represent PR and talk about what is really going on with the island. It was an amazing experience and we already were able to start Women Grow Latina, where we can present business models and share our experiences,” said the two women about the life-changing trip.

Next up? The first Growth Leaders PR, an educational space for networking and unification of the distinct sectors of healthcare, law, agriculture, and pretty much all entrepreneurs interested in making the industry thrive and grow.

“Helping a cancer patient who has lost his appetite to chemotherapy with THC so that he can start eating and feel relief gives me satisfaction. I want to offer people health and well being," says Gaby. These kinds of treatments approved by the Department of Health are just the beginning though.

Gaby and Grace say: "Woman are the basis for this industry to grow. All the women who are seriously interested in this industry shouldn’t be afraid to go to events and talk about it openly. This is something that can save Puerto Rico from economic and social crisis and help people with serious health problems. We want this industry to be strong and soundly built. Cannabis promotes unity, cannabis can unite us all.”