Entrepreneurs’ interest in medical pot is intense, yet very speculative


In this Feb. 7, 2014 file photo, a worker cultivates a special strain of medical marijuana known as Charlotte's Web inside a greenhouse, in a remote spot in the mountains west of Colorado Springs, Colo. Utah will begin issuing registration cards Tuesday, July 8, 2014, for its limited medical marijuana program targeting adults and children with severe epilepsy.

AP
Published: Sunday, August 31, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 31, 2014 at 9:21 p.m.

The website features a photo of bright green marijuana buds covered in what looks like white crystals, announcing that Gainesville Green Cross is "Florida's premier marijuana dispensary" and the spot for "Gainesville's best cannabis."

The home-page menu links to a page advising "our menus are coming soon … we're waiting just like you."

Contact information includes a phone number that does not work. The company name at the bottom of the website, Gainesville Green Cross, is not yet registered with the state.

A disclaimer says the page is a "test" site that does not represent any actual store or organization.

But it does represent the intense and highly speculative interest in the medical marijuana business with the voter referendum on Amendment 2 still more than two months away.

If medical marijuana does pass, crafting regulations won't start in earnest until next year. Only then will potential growers and dispensers know how much business opportunity may exist.

While a lot remains unsettled, budding entrepreneurs across the state already have incorporated several dozen companies with such names as Cannabiz, Cannabis Hemporium and Marijuana Farmacy in an effort to get in on the ground floor of the industry.

"The range of people interested in this is probably like any other new business. There are people who know what they're doing and people who don't," said Jon Mills, a longtime Gainesville resident and the former speaker of the Florida House. Mills authored the proposed medical marijuana amendment and now chairs Florida for Care, a committee working to develop recommendations for regulations.

Locally, Gainesville resident Robert Roundtree III, who owns car detailing and web development businesses, has registered a new company, Florida Medical Marijuana Treatment Center, and started the website floridamarijuana.net.

Roundtree has set up the skeleton of a site that would allow users to locate dispensaries and the offices of doctors who see patients and certify them for medical marijuana. Roundtree also plans a jobs board and a listing of recipes. Roundtree said he'd also like to set up a dispensary, and a delivery and security service.

Gainesville resident Ray Moorer said he plans to incorporate a business, Green Hubris Organics, which he already has announced via Facebook "will be the best medical marijuana dispensary in Northern Florida."

In a phone interview, Moorer said he also would like to get into the business of growing medical marijuana.

Roundtree and Moorer both said they've followed the medical marijuana industry elsewhere and have contacts who have run successful businesses in other states. At the same time, they acknowledge that a lot remains uncertain about the future of the industry in Florida and what business opportunities, if any, there will be for them.

Moorer said he thinks polls have overstated the chances of Amendment 2 passing. He says that, despite intense interest among some, a lot of state voters know little to nothing of the measure.

To prove this point to some friends, he began surveying some other patrons in a restaurant to see what they knew about Amendment 2. None of them were aware of it. Moorer said one man believed he meant the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and began talking about his support for gun rights.

If the medical marijuana referendum does pass, Moorer, Roundtree and others seeking entry to the industry are concerned they might get shut out if the state's eventual regulations follow the model of the Florida Department of Health's current proposed rules for Charlotte's Web, the low-THC strain the Legislature approved last session.

The state's proposed Charlotte's Web regulations, which are not yet final, would break the state into five regions with a single company in each region growing, processing and dispensing medical marijuana. To be eligible, a business must have operated a nursery in the state for at least 30 years, and would have to own at least a 25 percent interest in it. The dispensing company for each region would be selected via lottery. That company would have to pay a $150,000 application fee, post a $5 million performance bond and, every two years, pay a $300,000 renewal fee.

"It's pretty anti-business," Roundtree said of the proposed Charlotte's Web rules. "I almost feel as though it's designed to be a headache."

But the Florida Department of Health projects that the full implementation of Amendment 2 would mean nearly 420,000 patients and almost 1,800 dispensaries.

"I feel eventually, even if it's not right away, things will open up," Roundtree said. "I think in Florida we will take baby steps. It will be more restrictive than other states but not as restrictive as Charlotte's Web."

One area that already has opened up is the business of putting on day-long conferences on medical marijuana and the potential the industry might hold.

In late September, Moorer said he is putting on a medical marijuana conference in Jacksonville with at least 11 scheduled speakers, a mix that includes advocates, industry professionals, horticulture experts and growers. The general admission cost for the event is $299.99.

On a recent Friday at the Cuban Club in Tampa's Ybor City, the Florida Cannabis Coalition put on CannaDay Tampa Bay, a $249 seminar that mixed information on Charlotte's Web and the pending referendum with advocacy. Among the speakers were Bill Wohlsifer, the Libertarian candidate for Florida attorney general, and the CannaMoms, a group of mothers with small children who have conditions such as brain cancer or epilepsy. The mothers are advocates who use cannabis to treat their children instead of powerful painkiller medications.

Take away the fact that the event's focus was a business that is currently illegal, and it resembled a typical seminar. In the lobby, the crowd of attendees mingled. Everyone wore name tags. A few people wore suits and carried leather portfolio cases. The crowd spanned age groups from teenagers to senior citizens.

Friends Sano Spoto, 18, Jacob Dever, 18, and Vinny Sadowski, 19, had traveled across Tampa Bay from Pinellas County to attend the event. Recent high school graduates, they wanted to learn about the referendum and potential business opportunities down the road.

Spoto said he had a personal experience, a family member with cancer who had used marijuana to ease pain in the last few months before passing away.

He said he expects Florida to have far more restrictive rules for usage than the loosely regulated system in California, which opponents of Amendment 2 say will be the future here. That's not a problem, he said, as long as people with legitimate medical conditions can access marijuana for treatment.

"We'd like the world to see that young people take this seriously," he said.

Steve Grace, 60, owns a hydro-organic gardening store in the Tampa area. He came to the event to gather information on what type of business opportunities might be available to his store, particularly if home growing is allowed, and because he supports the use of marijuana and cannabis oil as an option to treat debilitating medical conditions instead of painkillers.

Through much of the event in Tampa, a recurring theme was that Charlotte's Web is too restrictive for both businesses and patients.

Mills, the former House speaker and former dean of the University of Florida Levin College of Law, agrees with that sentiment.

"It's not a logically regulated free market approach," he said.

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