Eclectic entrepreneur Chris Visco plans to expand her chain of three medical cannabis dispensaries.

Chris Visco was once a major buyer for a department store. She has taught serial killers how to make lamps. She has also run several political campaigns, and operated a bakery.

Now Visco is Pennsylvania’s dominant retailer of medical marijuana. The 47-year-old mother of three is the co-founder and CEO of TerraVida Holistic Centers, a chain of three cannabis dispensaries scattered across the Philadelphia suburbs.

“I am the biggest (legal) weed dealer in the state,” Visco said, with customary bravado. Her claim is supported by the state’s medical marijuana growers.

“We sell between 30 and 40 pounds of (marijuana) flower a month,” she said. “Then there’s the concentrates and other products. I’ve had over 20,000 unique patients who have walked through the doors since we opened in February. And the business is still growing.”

She’s also a patient. Visco said cannabis products have been good for her migraines and insomnia. She uses the Pineapple Express strain for her headaches. And each night, an hour before bed, she takes a 10 mg THC capsule that she maintains has increased the number of hours she can sleep from three hours to between five and six hours. “It’s really worked for me,” she said.

Visco has taken an unorthodox route to the top of the Keystone State’s cannabis industry. She presides over an expanding chain – she hopes to open six more spa-like dispensaries next year – and employs nearly 80 people.

“Chris understood from the beginning that the marijuana business is, aside from whatever else it might be, a business,” said state Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat. “And as such the basic rules of business apply: Provide a good product, at a reasonable price, and market yourself aggressively. This put her light years ahead of some others who felt that marijuana was magic, and the normal hard work of building a business wasn’t necessary.”

In Las Vegas in mid-November for the MJBizCon, the world’s largest marijuana business convention and expo, Visco said she witnessed a whirlwind of consolidation as venture capitalists sought to acquire successful grows and dispensaries throughout the country. “Everyone was buying and selling,” said Visco who entertained and rejected a few offers herself.

The number of patients walking through TerraVida’s doors may be rising, but Visco said her stores may still see lots of red ink this year.

“In the medical market, no one is making money,” Visco said. “Everyone – myself included – is playing the long game, waiting for adult recreational use to become legal and for Congress to reschedule the drug from a Schedule I narcotic so we can take care of banking and get rid of that 280E tax.” (Because the federal government considers marijuana to be in the same category as heroin, banking services are hard to find and onerously expensive. Dispensaries are also prevented under 280E from writing off the cost of doing business, making for an effective tax rate up to 70 percent.)

“I have no desire to move on. This is what I do. This is who I am now,” Visco said. “I’m too emotionally attached to my patients to leave them. Next year, patients are going to need medicine and some (dispensaries) won’t be here. I can promise TerraVida will always be there.”

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