Mike Cardozo, CEO and founder of Karuna, was heavily influenced to pursue social justice by his father (left), pictured here at the opening of Mike's first dispensary in Maryland. | Alex Rogals, Staff Photographer

“‘When you do something you love, you won’t work another day in your life.’ You know that quote? That’s how I feel,” said Mario.

Mario turned 21 in March. He was recently declared cancer-free after a sudden diagnosis and intense treatment, during which he mitigated the effects of chemotherapy with marijuana to reduce nausea. And he has what he calls a dream job, working for Karuna, a recreational marijuana company hoping to get licensed in Illinois and open a dispensary and cultivation center in Forest Park.

Karuna founder and CEO Mike Cardozo won’t know until May at the earliest if he’ll be granted a dispensary license from the state, but he already has full-time employees on the payroll, and, through his incubator program, he’s training them to be budtenders, the term for employees working at medical or recreational cannabis retailers who interact with customers, answering questions about products.

At a recent training session Cardozo held in Chicago for his employees, one of whom is from Forest Park, the presentation by Cardozo and his business partners Matt Gaboury and Keoni DeFranco was vibrant, detailed, fascinating. Phrases like “lighting a bowl” and discussions about “shake,” the stuff left over in the bag after you use up all the flower, peppered the conversation in a casual way that takes a moment to get used to if you’re not in the industry and grew up with pot being illegal.

An in-depth conversation about terpenes highlighted how different types of cannabis produce different effects. But the way they interact with a person’s physiology can vary from person to person.

“There are so many hybrids,” said Gaboury while the trainees looked at the handouts and took notes. “Plus, individual biology means that different strains affect people in different ways.”

He talked about how someday there might be blood tests that can help determine the perfect product for each person. For now, though, the job of budtenders will be to help people evaluate what their expectations and desires are and matching them up with the perfect product.

“The budtender is the single-most important part of the industry,” said Gaboury, stressing to the trainees the significance of interacting and consulting with customers.

Cardozo lives in Maryland, but, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, was flying out every month to personally teach his employees about various industry topics.

“The idea is to give them a foundation that will launch them into successful cannabis careers, whether for us or for someone else,” said Cardozo. “We are enrolling every participant in online dispensary operations training, which provides industry-standard budtender certification. We offer them opportunities to work on application writing, legislative advocacy, production methods and more.”

Cardozo has 10 employees already on his payroll. Six are social equity employees, required by the state of Illinois, which has probably the strongest social equity component of any state that has legalized marijuana.

A social equity application in Illinois requires that the applicant has at least 10 full time employees, at least 51 percent of whom either currently reside in an area disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs or have been arrested for or convicted of a marijuana related offense now eligible for expungement.

Cardozo told his employees up front about the application rules. But for him, meeting the requirements isn’t just something he has to do; it’s something he says he believes in.

“It was about more than just employing a diverse group,” said Cardozo in an interview. “I want to see them end up in my position someday as an equity partner with their own company. Employment is a great start, but the social equity needle really starts to move once we see diversity in ownership positions. My intention is to provide enough support, education and guidance to our incubator participants that they eventually end up where I’m sitting.”

It might be easy to dismiss his words as lip service. After all, he’s already a successful business owner, co-founder of Chesapeake Alternatives, a Maryland medical cannabis processor and dispensary company acquired by Green Thumbs Industries last year.

But his desire to help others isn’t something new. He grew up with two older sisters in a family where his parents understood that when you’re fortunate, there is an obligation to give back.

“I credit my family with shaping my perspectives,” Cardozo said. “My dad, in particular, taught us that a meaningful life is built on integrity and service to others. As he approaches his 80th birthday, he remains my most trusted advisor, role model and supporter.”

Cardozo was always heavily involved in volunteer work and has spent every summer since he was 19 volunteering for 10 days at the Mid-Atlantic Burn Camp, annual therapeutic residential summer camp for young burn survivors.

“It’s the most important week of my year,” he said.

Medicine was a passion for him, and he worked as an EMT and firefighter and in a psychiatric hospital for mentally ill adolescents. When the opioid epidemic claimed the lives of two friends, and he witnessed the epidemic destroy people around him, he saw a way to help through medical marijuana.

“It became my life’s purpose,” said Cardozo. “It’s what gets me up every morning.”

He saw medical marijuana as a safe alternative to opioids, a way to help with withdrawal symptoms and effective for pain management.

“Marijuana is not a gateway drug; it’s an exit drug,” said Cardozo.

When Illinois began talk of legalizing marijuana and Cardozo saw the strong social equity component of the state’s plan, he was excited about the implications for helping people in other ways, about bettering the lives of individuals who had been negatively impacted by the unfair enforcement of drug laws. He sought out employees that would benefit from a job in the industry.

“We were looking for people who not only met the social equity criteria, but who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to enter the industry because of their background or criminal records. I wanted to find the people for whom the social equity program was intended. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the injustices there,” said Cardozo, who worked with Cabrini Green Legal Aid to find newly-released, formerly incarcerated individuals to help them file cannabis expungement paperwork, understand their rights, and take full advantage of the Illinois program.

“It was never about checking the box for us; it’s real,” said Cardozo. “When you value the social impact as much as the dollar, you can change lives. We are social entrepreneurs. It’s in our DNA.”

Mario said he couldn’t believe it when he saw the ad for the job, specifically looking for people who had marijuana-related records.

“It sounded too good to be true,” said Mario, who was pulled over with weed in his car a few years ago. “It’s so hard to believe,” he said about his job with Cardozo, where he’s learning a lot.

Mario looks forward to helping new customers if and when the dispensary opens. “I love helping people discover new things,” said Mario, who said the group of trainees is diverse but comprised of people who all have the same passion.

“It’s my dream job,” said Mario.

Just prior to major shut-downs due to the pandemic, Karuna began a partnership with Western Illinois University, which has a new Cannabis and Culture minor. The plan is to provide internships and regular adjunct lectures to students at WIU in courses such as public policy, contemporary moral problems, and religion and drugs.

“We wanted to provide WIU’s students with opportunities to gain operational experience and share our knowledge,” said Cardozo. “This is the first partnership of its kind.”

Cardozo won’t know until May at the earliest if he’ll be awarded a license to open a dispensary in Illinois, and the deadline for applications for cannabis infuser craft grower and transporter licenses, which Cardozo is submitting, were extended from March 16 to March 30 to April 30, according to a statement from the Illinois Department of Agriculture. The move came amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and also changed the method of submission to certified mail only, instead of allowing in-person submissions.

Cardozo said he is optimistic of getting licenses, and plans to open and operate in Forest Park, where he has already developed strong relationships with village officials and other business owners. But even if he doesn’t get a license, there’s pride in what he’s already done.

“Regardless of whether or not we win the licenses, we see it as a win-win scenario because the incubator will be improving lives through the training and support being provided to the participants,” he said.

“When all is said and done, I’ll measure my success by the lives I impacted, not the dollars I earned.”