Two men wearing slacks and button-down shirts emerge from an unmarked SUV outside a Cape Coral home and retrieve a small, unlabeled paper bag from a locked steel case filling the vehicle’s back hatch.
Stephen Hunt hands the men $60 in cash — the only kind of payment they’ll accept — in exchange for the bag and then signs an electronic form acknowledging his receipt of its contents: Two vaporizer pens filled with 10-day supplies of liquid cannabis.
With that, the deal is done. And for the 35-year-old Hunt, a diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder patient and one of more than 83,500 Floridians so far registered to use medical marijuana, it’s all perfectly legal.
“It’s actually done wonders for me and helped me get back on track. For a while, from the lack of sleep and the stress piling on my anxiety and depression, I was getting off track,” said Hunt, who manages a restaurant kitchen on Fort Myers Beach and tried prescription drugs without success. “It was a complete switch around when I started using the medication.”
As many Florida communities ban or delay the opening of marijuana dispensaries, the state’s cannabis producers and retailers have used deliveries to meet booming demand. Some of the largest such companies say that between a third and half of their customers now get the drug this way.
Florida had 28 cannabis dispensaries as of this week, roughly one for every 3,000 patients using the drug, according to the state Office of Medical Marijuana Use.
Most are concentrated on the state’s coasts or are in heavier-populated inland metropolitan areas, such as Orlando and Gainesville. That means that, in many parts of the state, patients might otherwise have to drive for more than an hour to find the nearest cannabis shop.
Southwest Florida has four nearby dispensaries: those operated by Trulieve in Tampa, Bradenton and North Fort Myers; and one Surterra Therapeutics dispensary in North Port.
About 100 Florida communities have banned them or passed moratoriums on them, including Estero, Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel. The Bonita Springs City Council voted on Wednesday to lift its moratorium on dispensaries.
In Hunt’s case, it was Surterra Wellness delivering from its two-month-old shop in North Port.
Surterra, which harvested the state’s first legal crop of cannabis in 2016, is one of seven company’s allowed to deliver the drug directly to patients.
The state does not track the number of deliveries, said Florida Department of Health spokeswoman Mara Gambineri. The companies also won’t say exactly how many of their customers take home deliveries, calling it a trade secret.
But, given the number of qualifying patients, it is likely substantial. Surterra Wellness estimates, for instance, that each of its four dispensaries does roughly 10 to 20 deliveries daily.
“Delivery is an essential part of our business, but the local cities and municipalities should think about lifting moratoriums,” said Matthew LiPani, assistant manager for Surterra Wellness in North Port and an occasional delivery driver. “They’re going to get the medicine regardless. We’re going to deliver it to them. But they also need local access to it.”
Trulieve, which has 13 dispensaries statewide — the most of any medical marijuana company in Florida — initially did up to 70 percent of its business in deliveries. It has dropped sharply as more dispensaries have opened, said company spokeswoman Victoria Walker.
“Obviously, every time you open a location the delivery percentages decline, because patients want to come into the stores for a shopping experience,” Walker said. “You get to have a more personal experience with all our employees to understand our products. That’s harder to do over the phone or on our website. You really can look and touch and feel what we have to offer.”
Safety and anonymity
Unlike, say, your neighborhood pizzeria, marijuana deliveries aim to be inconspicuous. One Surterra employee called it “unbranding.”
Surterra employees wear only small company badges but otherwise give no indication whom they work for. Drivers for Trulieve, which also delivers throughout the state, wear shirts bearing the company logo. But, like Surterra, their vehicles are unmarked.
Part of that is for security and part of it is to protect patient privacy, said Stan Sunleaf, who oversees all of Surterra’s deliveries in Florida.
“Because a lot of customers don’t want their neighbors — if they have it delivered to their home or their office — to know what they’re getting,” Sunleaf said. “So we keep it unmarked so nobody knows what’s going on.”
Vehicles have two occupants: One to deliver the cannabis product and another to keep an eye on the products still in the vehicle during those deliveries.
And, as required by state regulations, they must have undergone criminal background checks and have passed drug screenings — no medical marijuana users allowed.
The delivery employees must also log all amounts of cannabis delivered, the recipient addresses and any stops, including those for gas and meals. Surterra vehicles, which are not equipped with firearms, do have security cameras sending live feeds to its company security team, which can contact police if there are signs of trouble.
The products are stored in locked containers until the delivery address is reached.
Neither Surterra nor Trulieve – two of the state’s largest medical marijuana providers – say that have had any trouble dropping off the drugs. Though that threat certainly exists.
The medical marijuana industry remains largely cash-only, given the ever-present threat of a federal crackdown on state marijuana laws and, by extension, banks’ continuing reluctance to associate with it.
“I tell all my teams: If you get to a neighborhood and don’t feel safe, don’t do the delivery,” said Sunleaf. “It’s just not worth it.”
Medical marijuana providers will generally deliver to wherever the patient wants: their homes, a doctor’s office, even their places of employment.
Only qualified patients, through state-certified doctors, may order medical marijuana. Florida voters in 2016 overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state’s constitution allowing patients with certain “debilitating conditions,” such as chronic pain, HIV/AIDS and post-traumatic stress disorder, access to medical marijuana.
To get the drug, state-certified cannabis doctors must refer patients to a course of cannabis treatment. Those patients must also be registered as qualified medical marijuana patients with the state’s Department of Health. Cannabis providers must verify that information before delivering the drug and must confirm their identities upon delivery.
Delivery fees vary by company. For example, Surterra charges $10 and Trulieve charges $25.
Allen Bills, 61, of Fort Myers, had his 30-day supply of pain-relieving, cannabis-infused drops sent to a south Fort Myers medical clinic to coincide with a planned appointment with his medical marijuana doctor.
Bills, who suffers from chronic back pain, said he prefers cannabis over the opioids he previously took for relief. He said the cannabis formula he takes provides no high but has significantly helped his back.
“I’m not saying it works on everybody. I don’t know. I’m not a doctor,” Bills said. “I know it works on me.”
He said he prefers deliveries now because it allows him to decide when to get the medicine, instead of relying on the area’s limited number of dispensaries. He said he’d prefer that Southwest Florida had more, so he could buy it at his convenience.
“I get busy,” he said. “It would be nicer to be able to just stop in when I needed to.”
Even with that sentiment, cannabis companies expect deliveries to remain a significant part of their business.
“I think you’ll see it evolve and become more efficient,” said Walker, of Trulieve. “But, yeah, people will always want the convenience factor of that.”
MEDICAL MARIJUANA BY THE NUMBERS
83,500 – Floridians registered to use medical marijuana
1,194 – State certified cannabis doctors
28 – Cannabis dispensaries in Florida
4 – Cannabis dispensaries in Southwest Florida
100 – Communities in Florida banning dispensaries
(Source: State of Florida)