Nicholas Vita is a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who specialized in medical deals back when he worked in the financial services industry. Big money, however, isn’t the chief reason he gives for trying to build a multistate network of medical marijuana clinics, including one expected to open in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood next week.
Vita, chief executive of New York-based Columbia Care, said he has a more personal reason: his mom.
Vita said he saw firsthand how a cannabis topical cream recommended by a friend helped to alleviate her inflammation and pain from acute rheumatoid arthritis.
When he and another former Goldman Sachs executive, Michael Abbott, decided to make an investment together, they went into the medical marijuana business.
“Almost every single partner in the business has a personal story,” Vita said Monday. “There’s a huge unmet need.”
Besides the Jefferson Park facility, which will have about 15 employees, Columbia Care said it plans to open a marijuana-growing center in Aurora that will be up and running in 2017, creating another 40 jobs.
Vita and Abbott, who serves as Columbia executive chairman and also is a former police officer, wouldn’t be the first big-money executives to enter the medical marijuana industry. Other backers of Illinois dispensaries include Getco trading firm co-founder Stephen Schuler. His company, PharmaCann, has four Illinois locations. In a sign of how the industry could be moving beyond mom-and-pop operators, Columbia Care’s website lists an opening for a chief financial officer.
Illinois currently has 44 medical marijuana dispensaries, including five in the city of Chicago, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.
Last month the state of Illinois, which has one of the nation’s most restrictive medical marijuana programs, added post-traumatic stress disorder and terminal illness to the list of about 40 conditions that qualify patients to buy the drug. The state’s 9,000 patients spent about $3 million on medical marijuana last month.
Columbia Care’s location at 4758 N. Milwaukee Ave. had been a vacant building that the company bought, Vita said. The space for patients is about 2,000 square feet, with the total amount of usable square footage, including security features, being about double that.
The facility could accommodate hundreds of patients a day, but if it sees 20 a week for the first several weeks, Vita said he’ll be “delighted.”
Owen Brugh, chief of staff for Ald. John Arena, said the Columbia Care facility is two doors down from the 45th Ward office.
“It will be easy for us to keep an eye on them,” Brugh said. Columbia Care has been good to work with as it sought approvals to open in the neighborhood, he said. Arena didn’t take an official position on zoning matters related to the dispensary, Brugh said.
Jefferson Park marks Columbia Care’s entry into Illinois. It also has dispensaries in Arizona, New York and Massachusetts.
To access Illinois dispensaries, patients must be deemed eligible by a doctor and undergo a fingerprint background check. They also must be registered with the state’s public health department.
Columbia Care’s initial hours will be 1 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. There will be around-the-clock surveillance with a backup system. A physical inventory count is done twice a day. It also has security personnel on staff.
Initially a variety of marijuana products will be supplied by third-party growers in Illinois. Starting next year, Columbia Care expects to begin supplying its Chicago dispensary with additional products grown at its own cultivation facility in Aurora.