Medical Marijuana Businesses Setting Up Shop In Southwest Florida

Photo Credit: Olivia Vanni

The medical marijuana industry is starting to take root in Southwest Florida.

Bonita Springs will allow medical marijuana dispensaries to open in the city. One such dispensary recently opened in Fort Myers. Collier County commissioners are debating whether to end their dispensary ban.

Thousands of people have added their names to the state registry and opened to the new medicine.

While gaining access to medical cannabis through dispensaries is becoming easier for residents of Bonita Springs and Collier County, navigating the state’s requirements to become a registered patient can be difficult.

Nick Garulay owns My Florida Green, a medical marijuana certification center. The business, which opened right after the state legalized medical cannabis use, has recommended 1,600 people in Collier and Lee counties as patients and has since expanded to five locations across the state, Garulay said.

A certification center is different than a dispensary. Patients go to a dispensary to pick up approved medical marijuana products such as oils or creams. A certification center has doctors who write “recommendations” and help patients with the state registry.

Doctors avoid the term “prescription,” opting instead to say “recommendation” when it comes to medical cannabis. Because marijuana is still illegal federally, the word “prescription” is avoided for legal reasons.

Garulay said that centers like his are needed for this new field in Florida medicine. Not every doctor can recommend medical marijuana. A general practitioner might not have the full training needed to understand how to properly use and recommend cannabis.

A two-hour course is all that’s legally required for a doctor to recommend medical marijuana. Garulay said the course is not enough to become an expert on medical marijuana use and best practices.

“It’s mostly just to explain how the state database systems work,” he said. “There’s not a lot of talk about the medicine.”

This can leave some general practitioners who have avoided marijuana their entire lives with little real knowledge of how it works as a treatment, Garulay said.

Several patients have come to Garulay’s center after bad experiences with their normal doctors, he said.

In Florida, medical marijuana can be taken in several forms, including via capsule like a pill. While a general practitioner is familiar with pill form, it can be a dangerous way to treat yourself, said Mac Strong, a My Florida Green employee.

“One older woman told us her doctor recommended she take one 50-milligram tablet twice a day,” he said. “I’m pretty experienced, and a 20-milligram tablet is my max. She was terrified.”

But 31-year-old Jason Shook’s neurologist decided to take full advantage of medical marijuana as an option when other medications seemed to fail, proving some doctors are embracing the drug.

“After taking some educational courses, he said, ‘This is something we can try. I think this can benefit you,’” Shook said.

Shook was 11 years old when doctors found a brain tumor. Rounds of radiation and chemotherapy left him cancer-free but with lifelong side effects. Strokes and seizures became more prevalent in his older age, likely a result of radiation treatment to the brain.

After a series of seizures in 2017, Shook ended up in Tampa General Hospital.

“I wouldn’t have any cognition,” he said. “I was out of my mind. I could say about two words and grunt another two.”

Several types of medication were prescribed to stem the seizures, but Shook was looking for something different.

“I got my license in October, and it’s made a great bit of difference in my life,” he said. “I’m still learning how to use it and how to dose it. It’s great to take with traditional medication.”

My Florida Green and other specialist centers have physicians who focus solely on appropriate usage of marijuana to treat an individual.

The state’s process is the biggest hurdle for people interested in receiving a medical marijuana recommendation, Garulay said. Before a patient goes to My Florida Green an online form needs to be filled out.

The actual appointment is spent going over the different medicine intake types and figuring out what dosage is right for the patient.

“Eighty percent of our patients are cannabis-inexperienced,” he said. “Most are older people. Almost no one is under 30.”

Smoking the substance is illegal under Florida law, so patients can’t roll a joint and light up. The use of vaporizers is allowed, but the effects are short-lived — only 30 minutes to an hour, he said.

“It’s fast-in, fast-out,” he said. “Good for dealing with something like anxiety attacks but not daily treatments.”

Drops of oil under the tongue are another common technique with effects lasting 4 to 6 hours, he said. Creams spread on the arms are another option as are pills, which Garulay said can have side effects.

Several conditions can be treated by medical marijuana under Florida law, including PTSD, cancer and epilepsy among others.

See Florida Health for more information.