For physician, cancer battle inspired cannabis company
FITCHBURG — No stranger to a challenge, Dr. Karen Munkacy found herself in the fight of her life.
More than a decade ago, Munkacy, the founder, president, and CEO of Garden Remedies Inc., was diagnosed at age 47 with stage 3B breast cancer. She had about a 50 percent chance of dying, she said.
“I told my oncologist: Kill all the cancer, but don’t kill me,” Munkacy said. “Well, they almost killed me.”
Munkacy is a board-certified anesthesiologist and licensed physician in California. When she began her medical career after her training at the University of Michigan, she pushed back against assumptions that she was a nurse rather than a doctor.
But the road to winning her fight against cancer would be arduous: Munkacy had six surgeries, including a double mastectomy, and 28 radiation treatments. The radiation and four months of chemotherapy left her with temporary bone marrow and liver failure. Waves of nausea interrupted her sleep.
The cancer was the size of a chicken egg and was growing into her chest wall, Munkacy said. The treatment was so aggressive, her doctors “tested my heart to make sure my body could withstand it,” Munkacy said.
She knew what pain management regimes were available, but nothing worked. Some of her colleagues recommended she turn to medical marijuana, but she refused because it was illegal.
In the privacy of her prayers, she looked past her cancer battle.
“ ‘God, if you allow me to be cured, someday, I’m going to work to make this legally available to people,’ ” she recalled thinking at the time. “ ‘It’s ridiculous I have to suffer like this, because my only other choice is to break the law.’ ”
In remission since 2005, Munkacy, now 61, has become a strong proponent for marijuana legalization. Her company, founded in 2013, has seen rapid growth in the Massachusetts marijuana industry since she opened her first medical dispensary in Newton in 2016.
The Michigan native moved to California for her internship, residency, and pain management fellowship. She came to Massachusetts in 2005. She’s married, and has a 31-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son.
Munkacy’s Garden Remedies also operates a cultivation facility in Fitchburg and opened a second medical marijuana dispensary in Melrose last month. She is now waiting for approval from the state Cannabis Control Commission to allow recreational sales at the Newton location, she said.
The company is also working to open another dispensary in Marlborough, and ultimately seeks to offer both medical and recreational sales there and in Melrose, she said.
Garden Remedies is also expanding its Fitchburg facility, where it has spent more than $15 million creating an indoor complex covering about an acre to cultivate about 10,000 marijuana plants, and house space for other functions, including research and development.
Much of the work at Garden Remedies has been self-taught, even after bringing in consultants to help advise employees on how to build their Fitchburg location.
“There were a lot of things we had to figure out ourselves, that the consultants couldn’t help us with,” Munkacy said. “Even with the cultivation methods they set for us, there was a lot of refinement that we had to do.”
There was also the struggle to raise money in the first place. Munkacy said investors largely weren’t comfortable with the notion of a woman-founded, woman-led company.
“For a lot of investors, the thought of a woman being a CEO . . . has never happened to them before,” she said.
Munkacy said she was able to raise more than $30 million, but only if she brought her Wharton-educated husband with her to meet investors.
“But if I went by myself? The answer was always no,” Munkacy said.
The state law enabling marijuana sales includes a social equity component intended to promote diversity among those who start businesses in the industry; Munkacy said that equity effort must include women as well.
“I think they get that,” Munkacy said of state regulators. “But I would like to see that stated on a regular basis.”
Visitors to the company’s Fitchburg facility are asked to don full-length scrubs, a hairnet, and mask to enter. The interior is clean, well-lit, spacious. It has the look of a laboratory, though there are human touches throughout: some doors have signs labeled “Be Happy.” Music played in some rooms, and someone left a message on a white board celebrating the latest Red Sox World Series win. (Munkacy’s staff refer to her as “Dr. Karen.”)
Gene Ray, 32, a lab manager and associate formulation scientist, studies the properties of the marijuana plant — an opportunity he never had until coming to Massachusetts.
The industry “is breaking new ground,” said Ray, who is originally from Tennessee. “It’s consistently growing and evolving. You can see it.”
Garden Remedies employs 95 people, and Munkacy said the company plans to increase the workforce to 150 by the end of next year. The company earned more than $8 million in revenue this year, and Munkacy described the total as “better” than last year.
State law requires marijuana businesses to share a portion of their revenues with local communities. Munkacy has also signed host community agreements guaranteeing additional payments to all four cities.
And that tax revenue can add up. In Newton, for example, a “very rough” estimate of potential revenue from Garden Remedies — assuming sales from both medical and recreational marijuana — is $700,000 annually, a city spokeswoman said.
Munkacy is not done yet. After learning how to build a company, she launched the Catalyst Mentoring Program earlier in the fall to teach other entrepreneurs the skills they need to join the marijuana industry.
The first group has three students who are each focused on a specific path — retail, cultivation, or processing — during the course of the 14-week program. Munkacy hopes to grow the number of students in the future. The program includes a mix of in-person training with Garden Remedies staff and virtual learning sessions, she said.
The program is intended to help students learn more about cultivation, processing, retail, and other parts of the cannabis business.
“It’s good karma to help other people,” Munkacy said. “If we can help right some of the obstructions to their success, it’s a good thing for everyone.”