For a few days after voters approved Amendment 2, a leafy marijuana sign adorned the sign post outside the red-brick building where the old Plantation Club used to be at 1639 Village Square Blvd. in Killearn.
The sign has since been taken down. And there are no clues as to what goes on inside. The front door has a key-pad entry. Visitors are likely to be met by a security guard in a bulletproof vest and a Surterra security badge.
This is the location of the dispensary and compounding facility for Surterra Therapeutics, which has partnered with Alpha Foliage of Homestead – one of six companies licensed to grow, process and dispense pharmaceutical-grade marijuana throughout Florida.
Within the next six months or so, that location will be a walk-in wellness center as well.
“We do have plans to open in Tallahassee,” said Monica Russell, a spokeswoman for Surterra, which has been quietly taking phone orders and delivering to patients in Tallahassee and across the state for the past few months.
Trulieve, the brand name for Hackney Farms of Quincy, opened the state’s first dispensary in Tallahassee in July. Surterra followed a month later with its first wellness center in Tampa.
Surterra and Trulieve are miles ahead of the pack. A year since the licenses were awarded, they were the first to begin distributing their product to a portion of the nearly 1,000 patients who are authorized to receive medical-grade marijuana in Florida. And they are the first to open dispensaries in more than one city with plans to expand statewide.
The two companies plan to tap into what will likely be a multi-billion-dollar-a-year business with 250,000 or more potential patients. That potential patient pool becomes even larger with the recent passage of Amendment 2, which makes medical marijuana accessible to a broader range of patients.
“We want to make sure patients across Florida don’t have a problem accessing this medicine that is allowable under the law,” said Kim Rivers, CEO of Trulieve.
HOW IT WORKS
After the passage of the Compassionate Use Act in 2014, the Department of Health created an application process to determine who would win the right to grow, process and distribute medical marijuana in Florida.
Of the more than 70 nurseries identified by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services as meeting the criteria, only 28 applied.
They each paid a nonrefundable $60,000 application fee, had to prove that they could cultivate low-THC marijuana, were in continuous existence for 30 or more years and were certified to cultivate more than 400,000 plants. The winning nurseries had to put up a $5 million security bond.
The deadline for the application process was July 8, 2015. Those that applied were scored by three officials, and the top five were awarded dispensary licenses – one for each of the five regions. The five were approved last November.
Since then, a court challenge resulted in the state granting a sixth license.
And a pending administrative hearing could lead to the state granting a seventh license.
Even though the nurseries are assigned by region, they can grow their product anywhere in the state as long as they maintain a presence in their home region.
“The licenses allow a primary cultivation and processing facility,” Rivers said. “For us, that’s Gadsden County.”
The licensees can build and operate grow facilities outside their region. Surterra’s main facility is in Hillsborough County, in the southwest region where it was assigned. But it also has a grow facility in Capitola, east of Tallahassee, that is larger than the Ruskin plant, Russell said.
“We have two cultivation facilities to make sure that no matter what occurred at either facility, we will be able to produce our product,” Russell said.
Dispensaries can only sell to patients who have gone through a qualification process and registered with the Compassionate Use Registry. So far, fewer than 1,000 patients have registered. Once the registry reaches 250,000 patients, the state will grant three other licenses.
They can sell low-THC non-euphoric “Charlotte’s Web” marijuana to patients with seizures or spasms after a three-month waiting period from the time the first doctor sees them. They can sell full-strength marijuana to patients who got two doctors to agree on their diagnosis that the patient had less than a year to live.
With the passage of Amendment 2, which takes effect Jan. 3, the dispensaries will be able to sell full-strength marijuana to people with cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV and AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, ALS, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis or other “debilitating medical conditions.”
The dispensaries are not allowed to have their medical directors recommend medical marijuana for their patients.
Physicians also stand to benefit financially from the medical marijuana boom. They must determine or recommend who can receive medical marijuana. They must go through a 10-hour training session before they can be registered by the Office of Compassionate Use. So far, about 200 physicians are authorized to order medical marijuana for their patients.
Dr. Mark Moore, an anesthesiologist who works out of Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare, was the first to open a clinic in Tallahassee dedicated to seeing people seeking medical marijuana. MEDCAN has about 10-15 percent of the patients registered in the state to receive medical marijuana, he said.
“It’s not every day that one doctor’s office in a state of 20 million can say they’ve got a percentage of those patients,” Moore said. “We are getting calls all over the state, we are trying to refer patients to physicians in the areas where they live.”
Moore has plans to expand his clinic to other locations around the state, and he’s recruiting and interviewing physicians.
“This is just the beginning. I am sure more physicians will certify over the next three months,” Moore said.
A big concern will be the ability of the dispensaries to keep up with the growing demand. Moore said he sent 10 patients to a dispensary last week only for them to be turned away because it had run out of product.
The sudden demand probably caught the dispensary by surprise, he said. Having more dispensaries to choose from increases the chance his patients will be able to fill their orders right away, he said.
“I want my patients to get the medicine they need when they need it,” Moore said.
Since August, Rebekah Deckerhoff has been receiving medical marijuana that helps reduce her 21-year-old son’s seizures since August. It took 20 years of advocacy to get there.
“What we have to work on as Floridians is increasing patient access and that means we need more doctors, and to work on reducing the cost for people,” Deckerhoff said.
The state has control over the cultivation and processing locations, cutting counties and cities out of controlling where they can be located. But the cities and counties can determine through their own zoning laws where and when the dispensaries can operate.
In the wake of Amendment 2’s passage, dozens of cities have passed moratoriums on dispensaries, while others are adopting rules outlining where they can and cannot be located.
Jacksonville is considering dividing the city up into districts. Miami Beach has passed an ordinance preventing sales within 500 feet of a residential area and within 1,000 feet of a school. Dispensaries also will be prohibited from setting up within a mile of each other.
Tallahassee currently allows dispensaries in the same areas where other medical services are allowed, but commissioners may be looking into regulations specifically aimed at dispensaries.
Trulieve opened the state’s first medical marijuana dispensary in Tallahassee in July, in a commercial strip mall on Southeast Capital Circle, far from any other medical offices or hospitals.
The company opened a second store in Clearwater and has plans to open more stores, CEO Rivers said.
“We’re opening a new location in Tampa in the next month or so,” she said. Other locations will be opening soon in Bradenton, Miami, Pensacola, St. Petersburg and Tampa.
Surterra opened its first dispensary in August on Fowler Avenue in Tampa, near the University of South Florida. The company invited officials from several municipalities to visit.
“We are really trying locally and elsewhere to .. remove the stigma and make this whole industry tolerable to the regulators,” Russell said.
Surterra also is sensitive about not creating a public backlash. Customers won’t find Bob Marley posters, marijuana flowers or paraphernalia that one might find in a dispensary in California or Colorado, she said.
“We want a place where a woman can come in with her child or elderly parent and feel comfortable,” Russell said.
Surterra doesn’t really view Trulieve as competition, she added. There’s plenty of business to go around with the potential hundreds of thousands of patients in Florida who may be ready to choose medical marijuana over other medications.
“We’re all competing, but we all want success for each other and success for our patients,” Russell said.
News Moderator: Katelyn Baker 420 MAGAZINE ®
Full Article: Surterra, Trulieve Vie For Statewide Marijuana Market
Author: Jeffrey Schweers
Contact: Tallahassee Democrat
Photo Credit: Joe Rondone
Website: Tallahassee Democrat