ST. LOUIS — Waking up early, taking his grandson to school, running errands and relaxing with his dog. Larry Simpson’s daily rituals are pretty routine for a 73-year-old retiree in Sunset Hills, Missouri.
“Midafternoon I want to go in my chair in there and read my book,” he said. “I just can't complain about my life. It's been good.”
His daily routine also includes eating at least one marijuana edible gummy.
“I never wanted to be the old guy who when he opens up his medicine cabinet, so many pills are falling out,” he said.
That’s one reason why when a family friend suggested he try medical cannabis to cope with a stomach cancer diagnosis, and the subsequent chemotherapy and surgeries, he decided to give it a try.
“It's really added to the quality of my life,” he said.
He was first in line at the first Missouri medical marijuana dispensary to open on Oct. 16, 2020. Today, he’s one of about 150,000 cannabis card carriers. Voters approved medical marijuana in 2018.
“More than 150,000 Missouri patients and caregivers now have safe, convenient and reliable access to a wide array of products from retail outlets located across the state. That access and affordability will only continue to increase as the state’s remaining license holders come online later this year and in 2022,” said MoCannTrade executive director Andrew Mullins in a statement to 5 On Your Side. A spokesperson for the state’s top trade association said the industry is expected to continue creating new jobs as more operations get going after this first year.
For physicians like Dr. Trish Hurford, a pain management specialist, medical marijuana has made the job of helping patients with chronic conditions a little easier.
“They can decrease or even eliminate some of those more dangerous pharmaceutical agents, some of those dangerous drugs, including opioids,” she said. “I've spent a lot of time educating myself so that I can be a resource for my patients.”
Dr. Hurford said at first she was skeptical, and thought of marijuana as a “gateway drug” to harmful illicit substances. That all changed when she saw the results in a patient who lives in Illinois, where cannabis has been available for medical use since 2015.
“It was a dramatic, impressive change for her. That change, that completely changed my opinion of cannabis as a medication option,” she said.
Specialized clinics can consult and certify someone interested in medical marijuana, some entirely online or over the phone, but Dr. Hurford suggested patients involve their physicians and medical team in the decision and ongoing care.
“You want your physician to know what you're using, because cannabis is not a panacea. There are some drug interactions that your physician as well as yourself should be aware of, and if you have a physician that you can use as a resource it makes that experience with cannabis that much better and that much more effective,” she said.
Among the qualifying conditions in Missouri, latest data shows the largest groups of patients qualify for "physical or psychological dependence," (20,988), undefined chronic medical conditions (17,492), undefined conditions (9,522) and cancer (2,204).
“I believe medical cannabis truly provides an option for patients that they haven't had before,” said Dr. Hurford.
Walk into one of Missouri’s 192 licensed dispensaries, like Root 66 in Dogtown, and it might feel like too many options.
“It’s a different type of shopping experience,” said Imani Bennett. He’s a wellness agent — a “bud-tender” — who helps patients navigate the cases of gummies, drinks, vaporizers, rolling papers and, of course, marijuana buds and determines what might be best for them.
“There are many effects, many different benefits. And so with us asking the patient questions, we can kind of start steering them in the right direction,” she said.
In the last year, the state's collected more than $136 million in tax revenue from dispensaries.
“It's been a slow ride, but it's that roller coaster is definitely starting to move now,” said Bennett.
Critics of the Missouri program say the process doesn't do enough to roll in businesses owned by women or people of color — who've been disproportionately impacted by laws against marijuana in the past. Expensive licensing requirements can also make it hard for small businesses to break in.
“I definitely want to see more like small batch-like cultivators more, you know, local entities actually with their products on the shelf,” said Bennett.
But overall, this St. Louis native said the marijuana industry is more local than he ever thought it'd be.
“Folks who are passionate about the cannabis industry were migrating out of Missouri, places like Colorado, California, Washington, just so they could get their foot in the industry,” he said. “And the fact that now I don't have to leave is such a blessing. I love it so much.”
For Simpson, it’s just another part of his daily life now.
“I was 70 years old, when I first got sick at 73 never had experience with marijuana,” he said. He’s measuring his medicine in milligrams — and anticipating years of good health to come. “It's been a big help to me,” said Simpson.