Anyone who thinks medical marijuana is just a nudge-and-wink cover for pushing legalization should speak with Rick Ferris, who has all the fervor and sincerity of a man who got a second chance in life.
As Ferris tells it, he worked in construction for 20-plus years, about 13 of those as a foreman pouring concrete floors, pillars and other industrial applications. In 2001, he injured his right foot, which led to deep-vein thrombosis (a blood clot) in his leg. Ferris then developed lymph edema, a painful condition of the lymphatic system that causes localized retention of fluids and tissue swelling, in his leg.
"I have pain in my hip, knee and ankle," Ferris says. "My one leg probably weighs 120 pounds; the other leg probably weighs 40 pounds."
Ferris couldn't work after his accident. He was mostly bedridden and says he was taking 120 Vicodin and 60 Xanax, powerful pain and anxiety medications, each month. He was living in a daze. Already a big man — his nickname is Big Daddy — Ferris' weight doubled to 600 pounds. Because of his size he was prescribed larger doses of the drugs than normal. When the Michigan Marihuana Act took effect Dec. 4, 2008, Ferris' doctor suggested he try pot as medication and wrote a recommendation. Ferris applied for a state card and received it.
"I'm not taking any Vicodin or Xanax now," says Ferris. "I lost 250 pounds. I don't lie around in bed no more. It saved my life. That's why I do what I do now. Every penny I have is used to make sure this law stays for people that need it."
Before the medical marijuana law passed, Ferris had looked around for ways to make a living since his leg kept him from construction. First he became the hot dog man. He bought a truck and traveled the state of Michigan selling dogs and other snacks at festivals. Then he started Big Daddy's Landscaping, handling the office while a couple of employees did the legwork. He did OK for a few years — until the escalating layoffs created a glut of people mowing their own lawns or starting their own services.
Then one day a landscaping client who is a medical marijuana patient showed him an apparatus that helps grow roots on plant cuttings and asked him if he could fix it up.
"I looked it up online and made a simpler one," Ferris says.
From there he moved to designing entire hydroponic growing systems and started selling them. Big Daddy's Hydro started in the Oak Park building that housed his landscaping service. Eventually the hydroponics business outpaced landscaping and Big Daddy's moved into a larger building.
"Making those is pretty much like construction," he says. "Get a blueprint and follow it."
Big Daddy's Hydro has expanded to sell several different growing systems, in addition to high-powered lights for growers and various plant nutrients. Ferris and his wife Susan co-own Big Daddy's Management, an umbrella business that all of their enterprises work under. Those include the hydro business, classes for growers, Michigan Medical Marijuana Magazine and the nonprofit Big Daddy's Compassion Club.
Big Daddy's has 17 employees — almost all of them registered medical marijuana patients or caregivers. The company leases two other buildings in Oak Park where the grow systems are constructed. And just last week, a new Big Daddy's location opened in Chesterfield Township, where Ferris expects to soon hire two more employees. He's been unsuccessfully seeking a business that will stamp metal hoods for lighting systems, which keeps him buying from wholesalers.
All in all, if you take the word marijuana out of the mix, it sounds exactly like what the state needs more of: entrepreneurs starting up fast-growing small businesses.
The organization started the slick monthly Michigan Medical Marijuana Magazine last fall as a way to get news about medical marijuana politics and issues out to the public and a vehicle for advertising industry products. Each magazine includes articles about legal concerns and activism, recipes and instructions for edible and topical marijuana use, and lots of pictures of various types of marijuana buds. It was a gutsy move in an environment where print publications are downsizing and failing seemingly every day.
"When we started the magazine, we said we'd give it a two-year window; we said we would not give up on the magazine," says Ferris. "Our upcoming December issue will have over 50 pages. The two years is out of the question now. It's already paying for itself. Every month we improve in sales."
MMMM prints 6,000 copies per month and works with two distribution companies in addition to individual subscriptions. It retails for $4.99.
The compassion club was started in May to help patients and caregivers produce and obtain their medicine. To date it has more than 1,400 members who pay a membership fee, and zero problems with the law, Ferris says. He emphasizes compliance with the letter of how the law has been interpreted so far. That means all transactions are with card-carrying patients, and caregivers stay strictly within the allotted 12 plants per patient. Messages left with the Oak Park police and Oakland County Sheriff's Department went unanswered, but it's worth noting that Big Daddy's was not included in the high-profile August busts of marijuana dispensaries in Ferndale and Waterford.
Ferris says that about one-third of patients get their medication for free thanks to excess production from caregivers associated with the club, and most of the money in the operation comes from hydro and light system sales. What it looks like from the outside is a business with a philanthropic side mission. Ferris spends a lot of time at meetings with other activists; he's a founder of the Michigan Association of Compassion Clubs, he's active in political lobbying, and frequently shows up at public meetings where cities are considering how to handle compassion clubs.
More and more, when surveying news articles about medical marijuana, words that apply to the business world come up. That's the approach Ferris takes.
"I do spend a lot of time at meetings," he says. "What we do is important not just to our industry but to our states. Look at California; look at the money it brings to that state, a lot of that could come to Michigan. It is an industry without a question. If you counted up the jobs that this law has given this state, you're getting into the tens of thousands. I don't think I'm exaggerating at all — caregivers, lawyers, doctors, the schools. There are a lot of people involved in this industry and a lot of people who want to be in this industry." (For the record, state officials say they've given out roughly 36,000 patient ID cards and have a three-month backlog.)
There is and always has been a lot of money involved in the drug war, and those who benefit from it want to hang on to their cash flow. But maybe it's time to see entrepreneurs in the drug business in a different light.