Cary Millstein saw his niece struggle in the grip of debilitating nerve pain. He watched his dad suffer in the throes of pancreatic cancer. Conventional pain medications didn’t help them enough; Millstein says doctors could offer something better.

“I want to help people. First and foremost, this is about improving lives,” says Millstein, 56, a member of Temple Isaiah in the Howard County community of Fulton and an executive board member of the Jewish Federation of Howard County.

Millstein advocates an herbal remedy. The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission recently selected his Freestate-Wellness LLC as one of 15 successful businesses from a pool of more than 140 applicants vying for the right to grow legal marijuana in the state.

It’s a provisional victory since Millstein and the others will still need to win approval for their detailed business plans before they can start growing. It will be at least another year before they can put seeds in the ground.

But Millstein says he is confident and content to wait. “We have a vision and a very detailed plan,” he says.

Industry insiders say vision and planning are just what is needed for those hoping to stake a claim in this emerging industry.

Beyond the usual ups and downs that any new business might face, “the complexity of the cannabis industry lends a plethora of additional risks,” says Derek Peterson, CEO of the publicly traded marijuana farming company Terra Tech.

Pot growers may face complex legal hurdles and regulatory challenges, as well as cash flow issues, since many bankers are still hesitant about dealing with such a stigmatized commodity. “Too many people enter the space thinking they will make millions overnight, when the reality is this is just like any other business — with a myriad of additional headaches,” Peterson says.

Millstein comes to the table well-versed in the complexities of the agricultural enterprise. When the family construction industry hit the skids during the recession, he leveraged his business skills to work as an agent between American pecan growers and their buyers in Asia.

“There are all the intricacies and planning and infrastructure and market forces that play out [in agriculture],” he says. “You think you just crack a nut and put it in your mouth, but these things that we take for granted as being simple and convenient — just having nuts when you want them, all year, every season — there is an enormous amount of logistics and planning behind that.”

Millstein spent six years mastering the complexities of the pecan trade. He did business in Georgia, Alabama, Texas, New Mexico, and as far afield as Lima, Peru.

“I would go down and meet the farmers and get involved in an in-depth way,” he says. “The only way I know how to do a business is to immerse myself in it. I wanted to understand how the crop cycles went. I wanted to know the difficulties the farmers faced, how the market had gone historically.”

While that historical information might have helped him to buy and sell a venerable nut crop, Millstein enjoys no such advantage when it comes to cannabis. This, of course, is uncharted territory.

“There is no primer. There is no business guide or study book,” he says. “You can look at Colorado, you can track their statistics because they publish everything. But extrapolating that information, drawing parallels to Maryland? There isn’t enough. There is still this ever-changing body of law, this constant evolution.”

That evolution has been rapid. Just a couple of years ago, when Millstein and his adult children would talk about the future pot farm, they had to do it in code. It was “dad’s Chinese restaurant project” for the longest time, until legalization elsewhere in the nation began to make Millstein’s chosen industry one that he could talk about in public.

Now, he has extended conversations with law enforcement officials, regulators, medical professionals — “all these people you never would have imagined you would be sitting down and talking openly with them about this,” he says. “Things have changed a lot.”

Adam Stone is an Annapolis-based freelance writer.

 

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