Florida’s Young Medical Marijuana Industry Takes Off

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Rosa Howard spent 30 minutes in line Tuesday at a Trulieve medical marijuana dispensary in Orlando, packed into a waiting room with mothers, babies and seniors as the distinct smell of cannabis hung in the air.

The 45-year-old from Oviedo spent nearly $180 on medical marijuana products including a nasal spray she said instantly ends her seizures and a vaping product to help with back pain from a car accident she suffered seven years ago.

“Before medical marijuana was legal, I was getting it illegally,” she said. “Now I can come here, and it takes less time than going to a pharmacy.”

Florida’s 16-month-old medical marijuana business is growing fast, as dispensaries and growers rush to establish themselves. It’s happening even as court battles over state regulations for the young industry rage on.

The state doesn’t track sales figures, but Florida’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use reported April 20 that more than 100,000 Floridians have signed up to receive medical pot, and the state is adding new registrants at a pace of about 3,000 a week.

Florida now has 13 companies with 34 medical marijuana dispensaries. There are three operating in Central Florida, all in Orlando, with several more in the works. About 1,300 doctors have registered as well to evaluate and approve patients for marijuana-based treatment of dozens of ailments.

It’s happened even as state lawmakers and local municipalities have put heavy restrictions on medical marijuana, which the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws said “is one of the more dysfunctional programs in the United States.”

“Rather than being a patient-centric program, it is largely a political expedient program, where the whims of lawmakers and regulators are placed above the interests of patients,” said NORML deputy director Paul Armentano.

Patients are prohibited from smoking or growing cannabis plants, restrictions that surprised many after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2016. Central Florida cities such as Lake County, Winter Park and Winter Garden have banned the shops.

Still, dispensaries have opened in every major population center in the state, and many plan expansions.

“Medical marijuana got off to a rocky start with implementation and the Legislature drawing the rules, but it’s pretty clear that it is popular,” said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida associate political science professor. “Lawmakers were less than thrilled with the idea of medical marijuana, so they put laws in place to restrict it to the degree that they thought they could.”

Florida’s licensed growers and dispensaries are careful to avoid being too specific when discussing the evolving rules but say business is expanding quickly, even though medical insurance won’t cover it.

“We are absolutely seeing growth take off,” said Victoria Walker, a spokeswoman for Quincy-based Trulieve, which has 14 locations in Florida. “It really comes down to physicians and access. As the physician count grew, so did the number of people who had access.”

Florida has lowered the original cost of the fee for doctors to be licensed to prescribe medical marijuana to $250 from $1,000 and reduced the training time to two hours from eight. It has increased the number of physicians able to recommend medical marijuana by 48 percent since the beginning of the year.

Besides nasal sprays and vaporizers, Trulieve sells syringes and creams. Other shops offer under-the-tongue-drops and suppositories. The Florida Department of Health is still working on rules for edible marijuana.

Several lawsuits are aimed at aspects of the law, such as a challenge on the ban on smokable weed from Orlando lawyer John Morgan, who was a major force in passing the amendment.

Orlando is the biggest market for Knox Medical, said spokesman Scott Klenet, whose company has a marijuana nursery in Winter Garden and opened Central Florida’s first dispensary in Orlando in May 2018.

“We have more than 15,000 patients across the state from our six dispensaries,” he said. “The growth in the industry is spectacular.”

Medical marijuana in new markets such as Florida can be lucrative for dispensaries, said Roy Bingham, CEO for marijuana industry data firm BDS Analytics.

“In Colorado [where recreational use is legal], there are thousands of dispensaries — some are struggling to get by,” he said. “But in some places with less competition, they can be doing $2 million a month.”

Florida’s market is attracting attention, too. In January, Canadian marijuana investment firm iAnthus Capital Holdings bought a Florida operation called GrowHealthy for $47.5 million earlier this year. Florida law requires medical marijuana companies to be based in the state but does not restrict outside ownership.

iAnthus CEO Randy Maslow said GrowHealthy has a lease for a new 2,000-square-foot dispensary in Orlando to open by year’s end, although he declined to say exactly where it is.

“We are looking at Florida as the biggest medical marijuana market in the United States,” he said. “As more dispensaries open and more doctors get qualified, you reach a critical mass at some point where more and more people are hearing about it and it’s easier to go to a dispensary.”