The Advocate Series: Karin Chester

A Rheumatoid Arthritis diagnosis at age 35 for Karin Chester started a journey through heavy pharmaceuticals to cannabis advocacy that belied her history as a volunteer fundraising coordinator for Narcotics Anonymous and as a Hillsboro band booster mom.

At one point, Chester was taking 46 pills a day. In 2014, she started using marijuana “to help with the side effects from the meds,” eventually landing her autoimmune diseases in remission.

She joined the Greater St. Louis NORML chapter, got on board with the 2016 and 2018 campaigns, and even photographed a series of patients in need of medical marijuana. While serving on the litigation committee in 2016 for the first campaign, Chester met Ashley Markham and her son, Ayden.

“When I met them, everything changed for me,” she said. “I kept thinking that if everyone could see this kid, they would realize why this is so important.”

She photographed Ayden first for the Missouri Patient Project and had the series, which included a girl with Gervais Syndrome and a woman veteran, printed to take to public events, such as county fairs, to say, “these are the people we are talking about.”

Chester at MoCannBizCon+Expo 2019

“For some reason, the fact that marijuana makes you feel better bothers some people,” Chester said.

After the Project, she got to work collecting signatures and helping the campaign any way she could, starting to plan fundraising events – and finally, a trade show. Chester’s first trade show raised $25,000 for the New Approach Missouri campaign.

“I had a crazy idea to do a trade show to raise money for the campaign – I had never done a trade show,” Chester said. “The one-day seminar in St. Louis was very successful. We stayed up late the night before stuffing bags and pre-printing badges. We happened to raise $25,000 for the campaign. We did it again in September, right before the vote, and we again raised a little bit of money for the campaign.”

The process has taught the now expo-planning CEO that volunteer committees don’t work for very large, successful, money-making events.

“I realized if we wanted to do this the right way with 2,000 people instead of 200, there was no way to do it with a committee of volunteers – not to do it professionally and do it well. I wanted to do events that were educational, entertaining, and engaging, and professionally produced and executed”


And so, she started her company.

She worked with the trade associations, ultimately landing herself in an agreement with MoCannTrade to pull off the 2019 MoCannTradeBizCon+Expo, which brought in over 2,000 people before facility applications had even been crafted by the state – over a year out from when dispensaries might open their doors. Chester has taken her lessons from activism to her business, still advocating for the industry.

Chester at industry events. Photos by Chris Smith.

Since medical marijuana has become a reality, Chester has become vice president of MoCannTrade and CEO of Midwest Canna Expos. Between the campaigns, association meetups, and event organization, Chester has put hundreds of thousands of miles on her car and doesn’t show any sign of stopping.

“I’m a big-picture person – that’s my superpower – I started thinking about if we have medical, there will likely be an adult-use bill in 3-5 years,” she said. “Every state that has had medical and then legalized adult-use has lost quality medically. I want to hold Missouri to a higher standard. It is really important that the people making money off of cannabis have a responsibility to help provide medicine to patients who can’t afford it.”

She’s put her money where her mouth is, having planned a summer fundraiser in Kansas City for Ayden’s Alliance, an organization that helps families afford costs related to need and use of medical marijuana.

“That’s what motivates me and that’s what gets me up in the morning,” she said. “Being a business owner is a heavy responsibility – motherhood is the only thing that comes close. I don’t worry about my paycheck, I worry if I can pay my staff.”

Chester and her staff at Midwest Canna Expos are now hard at work planning the 2020 MoCannBizCon+Expo. Her events continue to contribute a portion of proceeds to organizations like Ayden’s Alliance. She continues her involvement with MoCannTrade, where she can be seen at almost every monthly meetup at the front table. She zig zags the state constantly, connecting with other advocates she has met along the way.