For decades, Jake Thornton and his parents were searching for better ways to help his younger sister who has autism and epilepsy. The various medications that aimed to improve her sleep and anxiety often had unfavorable side effects, and in some cases made things worse. That was until medical and adult-use cannabis sales became legal.
Though its legalization is recent, cannabis has a centuries-long history of being used to treat different ailments; it was used for epilepsy in medieval times. It remained a popular tool in the US until the 1930s, then became classified as an illegal substance by the federal government in 1970.
But its benefits weren’t forgotten. California voted to legalize cannabis for medical purposes again in 1996, prompting other states to do the same over the following decades. Illinois became one of them in 2014 for medical and then legalized recreational cannabis in 2020.
Thornton recalls when cannabis was suggested as an option for his sister. “A more holistic doctor said, ‘You live in Illinois; there’s this program opening up. Why don’t you give it a try? There’s been some benefits out west that showed great potential.’ [My sister] did that, and she’s still taking an edible a night, goes to sleep, and wakes up happy. It’s really changed her life.”
Witnessing how cannabis transformed his sister’s well-being, Thornton sought to bring the same benefits to others. He’s found a way to do so as the associate general counsel and head of regulatory compliance and affairs at the popular global cannabis operator TerrAscend.
“I know how cannabis can help people. I’m in an industry where ultimately the goal is to help people feel better and deal with various ailments whether it’s sleeping, anxiety, [or] PTSD,” he says. “Also professionally, I need to be intrigued with my work and this industry is very interesting because it’s basically just getting started.”
TerrAscend has vertically integrated operations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan, Maryland, and California. The company is also headed toward additional expansion in Maryland, where it recently launched its “Gage” branded products in preparation for adult-use cannabis sales, which were approved by the state legislature in November 2022.
As the state is preparing to begin adult-use sales July 1, 2023, Thornton is focused on supporting the company’s growth by reviewing laws introduced to the legislature and determining how they could impact TerrAscend’s operations while soliciting comments from company leaders.
Thornton says that, as he participates in the process and funnels his company’s feedback to legislative groups, he’s particularly excited to see Maryland residents have the freedom to purchase cannabis.
It reminds him of the enthusiastic customers and patients who lined up in anticipation of New Jersey’s legal cannabis rollout in 2022. “I went out to northern New Jersey and helped our retail staff at a few stores and just to see people of all ages smiling [and] happy on the first day of sales last year was a milestone that was really cool for everyone to experience,” he explains. “It was just a joyful day. Everyone was proud and I’m looking forward to the same thing in Maryland.”
The future of TerrAscend and its industry continues to look bright, but Thornton acknowledges that their rapid evolution has come with growing pains. Under federal law, cannabis is still illegal, even as most states have relaxed their respective prohibitions on medical and recreational use. Industry leaders say this creates a host of challenges for businesses to operate.
For Thornton and TerrAscend, fluctuating regulations have hit the business particularly hard. “This dichotomy between cannabis being federally illegal and being legal in the states we operate in poses a lot of challenges, like with banking and having access to the capital markets that we need,” he says. “We’re also not taxed like a normal business in the sense that we cannot take deductions for typical business expenses. The industry’s financial health will greatly improve when this is corrected.”
He adds, “A lot of regulators like to treat us like a normal business even though we’re not treated as a normal business in many different ways.”
Thornton is hopeful that this will change in the next few years, giving companies a better chance to flourish and, as a result, be able to reduce their product prices.
“There has been some positive momentum as far as banking and tax legislation and if we were to receive more of that kind of support from legislatures across the country and the federal government, it would make a huge deal for this industry,” the associate general counsel says. “If you look at polls across the nation, you will see that people want adult use in their states. And I’m just hoping the legislatures hear this, notice it, and do what the residents of their states want.”
As the head of a compliance team, Thornton is a strong consultative leader, always wanting the thoughts and opinions of his staff before a decision is made. He believes it’s best to lead by listening, an idea he’s learned from great mentors he’s worked with throughout his career. When he talks about this leadership philosophy, you can hear his earnest desire to grow both professionally and personally.
“I know that no one’s perfect, including me, and so much more gets accomplished when multiple minds get put together and that’s not just in work but in life,” he says. “Ultimately, learning from prior leaders I’ve been exposed to, I give people the room to grow, I respect them, and I listen because I don’t have all the answers and together, we will grow stronger.”
He’s looking forward to the company’s exposure to new markets around the country, working with new regulators, seeing the industry progress, and watching lives improve as a result of TerrAscend’s products.
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