Mark Passerini is an entrepreneur, activist and pioneer in the world of medical marijuana and legal cannabis. The 39-year-old Chicago native owns and operates Om of Medicine, a medical marijuana dispensary located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with his friend and business partner Keith Lambert. In addition to running the dispensary, he also serves as president of the Illinois Cannabis Industry Association and is the government liaison for the Michigan chapter of Americans for Safe Access (ASA). He is a past president and co-founder of the Ann Arbor Medical Cannabis Guild as well as an organizer and emcee for the Hash Bash, the nation’s longest-running cannabis reform rally.

I only had the pleasure of meeting Mark for the first time a couple of months ago at a meeting of the ArcView Group (a venture capital fund that specializes in marijuana-themed businesses; Mark was an early member), I have known of him for years through our mutual network of friends. I always knew him to be an extremely sharp guy and accomplished entrepreneur and salesman and have followed his work in medical marijuana from afar. I was really excited to have a chance to ask him these questions.

MNN: How did you find your way to owning a medical marijuana dispensary?

Mark Passerini: I have always been an advocate of cannabis and believe in the healing power of this plant. When the Michigan medical cannabis law passed through voter referendum by a 2-1 margin, a friend called to present an investment opportunity. My business partner and I reviewed the plan for a dispensary in Lansing, Michigan, and quickly decided to fund the project. We provided the startup capital but were not involved in daily operations. During an initial site visit, we started to envision the creation of our own healing center. As our dialogue continued, we took stock of our combined resources: my experience in executive sales and management, his 18 years spent in the frenzy of the pit at the Chicago Board of Trade and Mercantile Exchange, our tenacious drive to do a job right, and our passion for the science of the cannabis plant — all seemed to come together to give us the push to jump off the sidelines as investors and into the joys/challenges of small business ownership. In researching potential locations, the city of Ann Arbor was top on our list for a couple of reasons. Ann Arbor enacted sensible cannabis policy over 40 years ago decriminalizing its possession, use and transfer. As a graduate of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I had experienced what an incredible city it is and it just made sense to return to the town where I spent years researching this plant.

Om of Medicine

Om Medicine in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (All photos: Mark Passerini)

What has surprised you the most about running the Om of Medicine?

The warm welcome we received! Even though Ann Arbor has been liberal with its cannabis laws, we fully expected quite a bit of pushback from many angles which did not materialize. We set out to be the most compliant and transparent dispensary in the state. Upon opening, we promptly invited the Ann Arbor City Council, mayor, city attorney, chief of police, as well as our state representative and state senator for a meeting and tour of our new facility. Each visited individually and spent time asking questions, talking to our patients, and learning about our operations. Upon leaving, many stated that they were more knowledgeable, comfortable, and supportive of the industry and movement as a whole. We have enjoyed these relationships and continue to work with them on many issues. Our local business leaders also showed a tremendous amount of excitement for our opening. We were invited to join the Main Street Area Association and are contributing to numerous nonprofits around the city strengthening our community in a variety of ways.

Om of medicine medical marijuana dispensary

Green is a theme at Om Medicine.

What’s going on in the world of Michigan medical marijuana law right now?

The Michigan Medical Marijuana Act was passed in November of 2008, making it the 13th state to pass such legislation. Currently, there are 21 states and the District of Columbia with MMJ laws. Every state to pass medical cannabis legislation since 2008 has enacted a functioning and regulated distribution (dispensary) system. Our lawmakers have been slow on implementing the same here, which puts the patients in Michigan at risk and with very few options on how/where to acquire their medicine. This also puts operators at risk because we are in the crosshairs of our misguided federal policy as well as a target for those in law enforcement who refuse to hear the voice of the majority. We are close to passing legislation that will regulate medical cannabis dispensaries and give the patients of Michigan another option to safely acquire their medicine. House Bill 4271 will leave the zoning and licensing up to each individual municipality as they see fit. This will allow us to focus solely on our patients without constantly looking over our shoulder. The bill overwhelmingly passed the State House by a margin of 95-14 on Dec. 12, 2013, and we are anxiously awaiting a vote in the state Senate.

You were an early member of the Arcview Group, an angel investment network specializing in connecting open-minded investors with marijuana-themed entrepreneurs. What role do you see the business of marijuana playing in the legalization of marijuana?

Money rules the world (unfortunately), and it is what will ultimately drive our industry out of the shadows and into the mainstream. When my partner and I decided to join the ArcView Group in early 2012, there were only 12 people gathered at a conference room table — now there are around 150 members who attend quarterly meetings! Cannabis legalization has some pretty wealthy opponents: the pharmaceutical industry, the alcohol industry, the private prison industry, and the tobacco industry have all contributed enormous sums of money lobbying against legalization. These industries see cannabis as a threat to their huge profits. They’re right! Cannabis is a much healthier, safer, less toxic, natural alternative for society as a whole. We have the truth on our side and a responsible, compassionate, and ethical industry will arise once the walls of prohibition are knocked down brick by brick. People around the country will take notice that the sky hasn’t fallen in Colorado and Washington. They will surely take notice when they hear that population has increased, crime has decreased, drunk driving has plummeted, domestic violence has had a sharp downturn and, oh yeah, they made how much in tax revenue!? Business, commerce, capitalism drive this country and every industry that lives in it — cannabis is no different.

Who is your favorite person in your industry and why?

Mark Passerini of Om MedicineThat is such a hard question because there are truly so many great people in this industry. I have a lot of respect for every dispensary and cultivation center operator for sticking their necks out to do what is right. I also have the utmost admiration for the activists at Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), Americans for Safe Access (ASA), Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Here in the state of Michigan, we have the National Patient Rights Association (NPRA) — a group lobbying our legislators every day to preserve the spirit of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act. To pick just one person would be impossible, so I’ll name a few that I think deserve the highest of accolades.

Troy Dayton has been a part of this movement since he and I met back in the late 1990s. He was a founder of SSDP, was the top fundraiser at MPP, co-founded the ArcView Group, and continues to shout about the injustices of cannabis prohibition from the top of every mountaintop he stands on. Troy is a true inspiration to me and his mentorship has proven invaluable throughout this journey.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta is not technically in this industry per se, but he has been vital in communicating the substantial medical efficacy of the cannabis plant to the general public through his two documentaries “Weed” and “Weed 2” released on CNN in August 2013 and March 2014. Dr. Gupta stated he was wrong about cannabis after examining the actual science and that he was in fact, duped by the federal government. One key takeaway is the contradiction between the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug (no currently accepted medicinal value) and patent # 6630507 issued to the federal government for its medicinal properties as an antioxidant and neuro-protectant. Hypocrisy at its best! Thanks for making this public knowledge Dr. Gupta!

Lastly, I would be remiss to leave out my business partner and life-long friend, Keith Lambert. Keith is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met and has such a passion for the science of what we do that it truly keeps me going. We like to say that this is our life’s work and that we have truly found our calling. Keith’s drive to educate himself as well as everyone around him is an invaluable asset to our business. I am constantly in awe by his boundless energy and his genuine dedication to this cause.

Inside Om of Medicine

Another look inside Om Medicine.

Why is it worth the risk?

Quite simply, our patients. Our patients desperately need safe access to medical cannabis. We have met thousands of amazing people suffering from debilitating medical conditions, many of whom have tried every pharmaceutical prescribed by their doctor only to find these synthetic drugs have done very little to improve their quality of life and are often accompanied by terrible side effects. Cannabis works with their body to alleviate a myriad of symptoms and conditions in a natural way. For many, it is the only treatment that works. In order to change a law, you have to challenge a law, and we are on the front lines of doing just that. My personal opinion is: if a patient wants to plant a seed in their basement in order to naturally alleviate their pain and avoid using harsh, toxic, and in many cases, lethal pharmaceuticals — who is going to tell them they can’t? This is the United States of America, land of the free! Yet we still imprison non-violent, contributing members of our society for the simple act of cultivating and/or ingesting a plant! That is not the type of society I want to live in, and I will continue to respectfully challenge anybody that says differently. My partner and I take this risk because we see the difference high-quality, lab-tested, medical cannabis makes in the lives of so many people.

Note:: I invited Mark to come up with and answer his own question below:

What are the top 3 things you wish everybody knew about cannabis?

1. How/why prohibition started. Most Americans don’t realize why cannabis is illegal in the first place. Many would be surprised to hear that it is rooted in racism, corporate greed, and politics — NOT in science and public health policy. Eighty years of propaganda and failed policy have run their course and taken its toll on our society and it is high time to change it. This article — Why is marijuana illegal? — is a detailed account of the reasons cannabis became illegal in the first place.

2. The efficacy of cannabis as a medicine. Cannabis prohibitionists profess there is scant research indicating the medical efficacy of the plant therefore it should not be used as a medicine. While federal prohibition has stymied researchers from obtaining resources needed to study medical cannabis, it is finally expanding and making its way to the public. The science is encouraging. We see how cannabis is beneficial and improves the quality of life for patients with a variety of ailments such as cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, PTSD, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia, insomnia, chronic pain, and so many others.

Here are a couple additional sources for more information on the efficacy of the plant:

3. Different delivery methods. Alternative delivery methods have advanced tenfold over the past five years due to the desire for an alternative to smoking. Medical patients have an array of choices available from vaporizing the flowers of the plant, using tinctures/sprays, consuming cannabis-infused edibles, applying topicals or balms, ingesting oil capsules, using transdermal patches, and much, much more!

This is part of an occasional series focusing on the legal cannabis industry.

Want to read more about marijuana? Check out these posts on MNN:

Are you on Twitter? Follow me (@sheagunther) there, I give good tweets. And if you really like my writing, you can join my Facebook page and visit my homepage.

Shea Gunther is a podcaster, writer, and entrepreneur living in Portland, Maine. He hosts the popular podcast "Marijuana Today Daily" and was a founder of Renewable Choice Energy, the country's leading provider of wind credits and Green Options. He plays a lot of ultimate frisbee and loves bad jokes.

Mark Passerini: How one cannabis advocate morphed into a marijuana dispensary owner
Read about how Chicago native Mark Passerini got involved in the world of medical marijuana and legal cannabis.