As Quad-Citians settle into the legal recreational marijuana market in Illinois, new faces — and some who have been in the Quad-Cities for years — have begun to establish themselves in the budding cannabis sector.
Here are the stories of four people who helped bring recreational cannabis to the Quad-Cities.
Matt Stern, entrepreneur
Matt Stern has education, experience guts and a vision.
And all four played a major role in his starting NTI, Nature’s Treatment of Illinois, a cannabis dispensary facility in Milan. For at least the first part of the new year, NTI will be the only dispensary in the Quad-Cities selling recreational marijuana.
The Rock Island High School and University of Illinois grad, and former football Fighting Illini walk-on linebacker, also has an MBA in finance from the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, the nation’s first business school.
His experience includes three years at Merrill Lynch financial institutions group as an analyst, one year with Merrill Lynch’s London Financial Institutions Group, time with Deutsche Bank in the Capital Markets Division, at first in charge of Scandinavia. Then, while still with Deutsche Bank, it was on to Russia and in charge of Central and Eastern Europe.
After Russia collapsed, it was on to Tokyo where his minor in Japanese at Illinois came in handy, heading up the financial institutions and capital markets Group in Tokyo for three years. He then moved to Credit Suisse First Boston.
Eventually, planning to retire at 34, he came back to Rock Island in 2002 to help his dad, Mike Sr. run Stern Beverage in Milan, where Matt is now the president.
That wealth of business experience has helped shape the past two decades of business for Stern.
“In the banking world we were in, it’s very aggressive, and you have to look long term, and you have to judge your risk long term. If you make the wrong deal on investment banking you’re one, fired, and, two you have just lost $10 million for your bank," he said. "So you have got to take calculated risks. So I think that’s kind of the way I've lived my life since then.”
Nature's Treatment of Illinois
Stern, now 50, is the owner and CEO of Nature’s Treatment of Illinois, which is expanding to about a 6,000-square-foot facility.
It was a calculated risk to first go into the medical marijuana business three years ago, building a 2,500-square-foot, $1.3 million dispensary, and then to add on to that business with an adjacent recreational marijuana business facility — all 3,500 square feet of it, built at a cost of $1.5 million — which officially opened Jan. 1.
Early on, there were just 50 patients using medical marijuana at the facility that opened up in February of 2016.
But less than four years later, that number is more than 1,400.
Much of his motivation for building the medical facility was to combat the burgeoning opioid epidemic.
“When I went out to Colorado and did my own research on it, I basically just kind of foresaw the opioid epidemic and understanding that opioids are actually a pretty huge problem and opioids are what’s actually killing a lot of people and people get dependent on them,” he said. “They also have severe side effects. Then you see those people come in and switch to a cannabis option. Then they come in and after a few weeks, give us thoughts and thanking us for how much better they feel and how much their quality of life has improved."
The success of the medical marijuana portion of the business led him to build the recreational side after he was approved for a license. As an existing medical facility, he had a leg up in the race to sell recreational marijuana.
“We anticipate four to five times the sales compared to medical,” he said. “On the medical side, it’s so hard for people to get cards,” he explained. “You’ve got to go through so much, you have to go through a lot of paperwork, you got to get your doctor to sign off. Some of them are still skeptical. So it’s hard to get your medical card, then there is a delay. It's usually a month before someone does get an application in for a medical card to when they get one.”
Now, the ease of purchasing recreational marijuana could pay big dividends for Stern.
“Now people can just walk in and with a form of ID that shows they are 21,” he said. “And for many states, they can purchase. So just the ease of purchasing is going to make a huge difference.”
A Midas touch?
Jeff Rusk, owner of Steve’s Old Time Tap, has been a friend of Stern’s for about 17 years. He laughs approvingly at the success Stern has had.
“It’s like everything he gets involved in turns to gold,” said Rusk. “I know his banking was unbelievable. He was ready to retire at 34 and came back to help his dad out (at Stern Beverage). Everything he does has just turned to gold. It has worked out great for him. He had the vision of the marijuana stuff way back when. And he invited a bunch of us to get involved."
“He does have that vision,” said Jeff Hughbanks, of Davenport, a friend of Stern’s for a decade and a business partner for about eight years. “He just has a knack for things, whether it’s commercial real estate, residential real estate, marijuana. Just any kind of trend, he seems to see it before most people do.”
Both men agree on Stern's character too.
“He’s a great guy, very personable,” said Hughbanks. “He’s got a big heart. He’s there to help. He doesn’t do things for publicity, or anything like that. He’s a very quiet person that does a lot for the community.”
"There’s not something bad I can say about him," Rusk said. "He just honestly tries to help anyone and everyone he can.”
Rock Island his calling
Stern lives and invests often in his hometown of Rock Island.
“He’s very loyal to his hometown, Rusk said. “That’s why he tries to buy most of his properties in Rock Island. He’s trying to build Rock island, trying to help the town as much as he can.”
Hughbanks is a partner with Stern in Awake, a Rock Island coffee shop.
“Matt just believes in Rock Island,” Hughbanks said. The partners have projects such as apartments, commercial space, office buildings. “And it’s all essentially in Rock Island right now,” Hughbanks said.
The two are also building a dispensary in Galesburg.
"I am going to pull the trigger on this thing and we are going to try to get the license," he said.
Mark Woods, doctor
In Illinois, even when a person's medical diagnosis fits having a medical marijuana card, it can be difficult to find the right doctor to approve it.
More than 87,000 people have qualified for the program since it began in 2015, including more than 37,000 in the past fiscal year, according to an Illinois Department of Public Health annual report.
And as the closest doctor to approve medical marijuana cards to the Quad-Cities, Dr. Mark Woods has seen a lot of patients.
"They're just normal people who, for whatever reason, the traditional medical approach hasn't given them benefits, so they want to see if medical cannabis will give them some relief where other things haven't helped," said Woods, of Star Flower Clinic and Wellness in Fulton, Ill.
To get a medical marijuana card, one must have a provable diagnosis that fits under the requirements of a card, which include ALS, cancer and PTSD.
"Then the state of Illinois requires a physician-patient replacement, which is defined by at least two visits. So it's two visits if you're going to do it right," Woods said.
In that first visit, Dr. Woods reviews the patient's medical records, including the diagnosis. After confirming the patient has a diagnosis that fits under Illinois law, Woods writes a certification form during the second visit. The certificate is then submitted to the state, and a provisional medical cannabis card is given out within 24-48 hours.
"So it's two visits and how much time there is between the two visits is the time it takes to get the card."
Dr. Ramon Pla founded Star Flower in 2016, and Woods took over last year. "He showed me the ropes and taught me everything I know about certifying medical cannabis," Woods said. "I think it was our friendship and seeing the benefit it has on people kind of swayed me into it."
Woods said people who come in are sometimes in worse health than those who come into his main clinic in Morrison, Ill. Some come in after multiple surgeries or in terrible pain from their cancer. "There isn't anything else that medicine has to offer, so they're looking toward medical cannabis to get some relief," he said. "So far and away, the patients I see are sometimes in worse condition than my own family practice patients are."
At Star Flower, Woods said he sees patients who live all over the place. About half are from the Quad-Cities, but he's seen patients from as far away as Danville, almost four hours away. He's also seen patients from Galesburg and Peoria. He sees about 70 to 80 patients a month.
In terms of vetting the patient, Woods said the receptionist screens the patient to see if they have the proper diagnosis for medical cannabis. "Everybody I see and certify has a certifiable diagnosis," he said. "They all do qualify, so it's not really up to me to figure out what their motive is."
But now that recreational marijuana is legal in Illinois, Woods said people coming to Star Flower would likely "fall by the wayside."
However, he thinks the medical program will be fine in the long run. Among the reasons for that include the high sales tax on recreational cannabis. "In the long run, it would be less expensive if the person is certifiable to go with a medical cannabis card approach than to pay the exorbitant sales tax that will be required."
Another reason medical will be fine is that people may want the security that having a medical card gives, Woods said. "If they have a medical card, I think it puts them in better standing than if it was purely recreational.
"I've heard some amazing stories of people benefiting from medical cannabis. So I've learned that there's more than one approach to whatever ails a person, and medical cannabis needs to be one of the tools in any physician's toolbox to help their patients if they truly want to improve their lives."
Anthony Jenkins, adviser
Anthony Jenkins is still hopeful for the Quad-Cities, but most of all Rock Island.
You have free articles remaining.
He views the possibilities around legal cannabis businesses as a potential renaissance for Rock Island. Jenkins, 44, a 1993 Moline High School grad, says he spent most of his time in Rock Island growing up.
He spoke up several times at a Rock Island Public Library forum on recreational marijuana and used that hopeful phrase several times. A renaissance.
“The entire west end of Rock Island is vacant … it was the place to go for entertainment and now what?”
Jenkins moved back to Rock Island from Hong Kong in August. He was in the entertainment sector in Hong Kong, and moved as what started as peaceful protests against China turned violent in recent weeks and months.
“With me making money in music and fashion and my wife doing education, we would be f— right now” if we had stayed, he said.
It was a winding road that took him to Hong Kong. Jenkins was in the local rap scene in the Quad-Cities from 1995 to about 2000. From there, he went to Florida and became involved with reggae DJs and eventually was booked to perform in Thailand for one or two shows and ended up staying and settled into Hong Kong.
His venture into the cannabis world was, in part, because the worlds of music and marijuana are often entwined. Part of his rise was always being seen at parties and people wondering why he smelled of good marijuana, Jenkins recalled with a smile.
That opened doors, and dialogue, with others.
Once in the Asian city, Jenkins began to meet people in the cannabis industry and helped develop vaporizers. He got involved in brand representation working with emerging artists in the hip-hop scene in Asia.
The protests in Hong Kong began as Illinois barreled toward legalization for the recreational cannabis market. Those two events combined to lead Jenkins home.
Jenkins said right now is a good time for the Q-C, and he is hopeful the moment of legal marijuana can be seized upon to build things back up.
“Rock Island is known for murders. Davenport is known for shootings and murders. It wasn’t always like that,” he said.
“The empty lots” in Rock Island. “It wasn’t like that. These empty lots have changed Rock Island. The gentrification of Moline. The businesses moving to northern Davenport … we moved so far from the heart of the city. Have we scared everyone away?”
Those same vacant lots could easily welcome legal cannabis businesses, especially in parts of Rock Island that were included on the state’s social equity map.
“I think mentally and emotionally it will definitely benefit the Quad-Cities. It’s a good stress release,” he said. “I have a lot of hope that (legislators) go back and change the laws like Los Angeles and California have.”
But even while Jenkins remains hopeful, he has his disappointments with how the recreational market is moving along.
“The whole system of social equity is built around Chicago and big cities,” he said, pointing to only one additional cannabis dispensary being allowed to open in 2020 for Rock Island, Henry and Mercer counties. “So where’s that space for social equity?”
Jenkins is remaining quite busy in his return to the area. He is developing a local media organization, Hard Vsion Media, which he had in Hong Kong, that produces commercials and other avenues as well as being an entrepreneur adviser.
“The youth have no idea about the power in their hands” with cell phones. Jenkins is going to “do what I can to bring that power to the table.”
Jenkins is high-energy and has interests in many local avenues. He tapped into that high energy part of his mind at a younger age, but then was locked up for a time as a teenager, staring at a potential stay behind bars of more than a decade.
It was at that point that Jenkins realized he was the master of his own destiny. His high energy became creativity bursting with ideas, which led him down the entrepreneur path.
“Now the same people who once wanted to throw me away and lock me up, now ask me for vacation advice,” Jenkins said, with a laugh. “One of the DAs who locked up a lot of my friends vacationed with me just to see if I was legit.”
But Jenkins acknowledges he found his footing and a path that worked for him.
“How many more kids are 18 and just need to come across someone like me? Some of these creative minds are probably right here (in the Quad-Cities) and don’t know.”
While Jenkins remained overseas, he kept tabs on his hometown. He was involved with a Facebook group that features dialogue about the Q-C and visited about eight years ago.
“It’s been a good welcoming experience. The hard part is establishing that I’m not going back overseas,” he said.
Jenkins is also getting involved with a local grow supply store, an emerging business that isn’t tied to a high-dollar figure state license in the marijuana business sector.
“I have a better palette here to make positive developments here, so why not move back here?”
As for the first two days of recreational sales, Jenkins, like many in the Land of Lincoln, was critical of the rollout of legalized marijuana.
“We don’t even have dispensaries that have enough to sell so, the joke’s on us,” he said. Using a sports analogy, Jenkins said Illinois has fumbled and botched the rollout of recreational cannabis.
“We have too many states that already have a working system and working laws and we’re going to be the laughing stock of the legal cannabis industry. Congrats Illinois, you’ve fooled us again.”
Chris Rice, activist
Chris Rice often finds himself copying and pasting messages on his cell phone. That’s because he often receives messages from Quad-City residents asking him about aspects to the recreational cannabis laws in Illinois.
Rice has been a local cannabis activist for almost 30 years, a path that began after Rice says he was searched multiple times by police for cannabis in his early 20s.
That led to a planned protest outside of the Scott County Courthouse, which then led to more local protests and eventually local Hemp Fests.
Those festivals weren’t “just happening here. This was happening elsewhere,” he said. “It was a total outlaw event; people were scared to go to it.”
The last one with which Rice was involved was in 1996 at Credit Island in Davenport. That festival ended with a riot and the arrests of more than 30 people. He had a child months later and spent more time with his family. He has assembled in a Google Drive document archived stories from the Times and Dispatch-Argus during that decade.
The festivals were two-fold: They sought legalization of marijuana and the re-legalization of hemp, which was used during World War II to make fiber for supplies, among other uses. Hemp was recently made federally legal and was grown by both Illinois and Iowa farmers in 2019.
“I believed in the '90s we were going to do it,” Rice said of the legalization push. “I knew it was going to happen before I died of old age. I believe activism played a big role in it over the decades and tens of thousands of people.”
In addition to Rice, Jim Getman, now 61, joined the local hemp coalition. He was seen in April 1991 waving a massive hemp flag in front of the old Rock Island County Courthouse during a protest, according to an archive photo from the Dispatch-Argus.
Getman got involved with the effort to get cannabis legalized while at Iowa State in the 1970s. In fact, he said 50% of his classmates, Davenport Central Class of 1976, supported legalization efforts at the time.
“Our boys were coming back from Vietnam, and it seemed like everyone was smoking pot back in those days. I kind of joked that the drinking age was 14 and we learned how to drink before we learned how to drive back then,” he said.
Getman and Rice worked together on the local production of HEMP=TV, a public access television show that ran for 23 years on Channel 19. Clips and footage from the show can be viewed on YouTube, as Getman has been transferring the VHS copies into a digital format.
The show included Getman urging local residents to talk to their local politicians about legalization and other information related to marijuana and hemp. The show ended in recent years, as Getman said the format became obsolete with growing reliance on the internet.
Two decades after the Hemp Festivals of the 1990s, Rice has found himself back on the activism scene. One of the things that Rice did in recent weeks was crate the public Facebook event page for the first day of recreational sales at Nature’s Treatment of Illinois in Milan.
While some are beginning to voice criticisms of the approach Illinois is taking on the recreational marijuana market, Rice remains upbeat, calling Jan. 1's legalization a "big step forward for freedom."
He made the analogy to gambling. What began as riverboat casinos have since come on land; there are even bar slot machines at most establishments that have a liquor license.
“There are people doing life in prison and you are worried about prices?” he said of some critics. “It’s the end of prohibition.”
But he does acknowledge that prices will be high compared to what some might be used to on the street.
“Prices are two times as high as the black market cannabis already. I’m glad we have a locally-owned dispensary, but we need competition,” Rice said. “Only way they’re going to beat the black market is on price, quality, quantity and convenience.”
Rice is also hopeful that more action can happen on the state’s part. He wants to see lower barriers to entry for cultivation centers and dispensaries, and possibly access to home grows for the recreational market as well as places for social use, such as a pool hall or a live music venue.
The Rock Island man was able to participate in the first day of recreational cannabis sales and says he enjoyed it
"People were social and excited to be a part of history, even though prices were steep," Rice said Thursday. One of his main takeaways from the first day of operations was that the state is "going to need a lot more dispensaries."
As far as the criminal justice system, Rice has a felony marijuana charge that won’t be part of the expungement process being rolled out in the Land of Lincoln. But he remains hopeful for some type of resolution on that front from Gov. JB Pritzker.
“The Governor wanted a total reset on the original (state) House bill … it’s a personal suspicion of mine or hope that the Governor may pardon a lot of those” at some point, Rice said.
Gov. Pritzker is “totally sincere in that he thinks people were wronged by these laws and there needed to be change.”
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.