Entrepreneurs Give Input As Florida Regulators Mull Medical Marijuana

Aug 1, 2014

A brand of low-THC cannabis called Charlotte's Web was named after Paige Figi's daughter, Charlotte, who uses medical cannabis to treat her seizures. Figi asked Florida health regulators to move quickly for children like hers.
Credit The Florida Channel

Today the Florida Department of Health held its second public hearing to help shape proposed medical marijuana rules. With one strain of the drug already legalized, regulators are building the framework for growing and distributing it. The rulemaking is drawing the attention of a host of entrepreneurs who expect a more expansive medical marijuana amendment to pass in November.

Florida health regulators have introduced several “compromises” in proposed rules since first taking feedback last month. But as Friday’s meeting showed, patients worry about a delay in getting their cannabis as issues related to marijuana growing operations remain unresolved.

Today, the Florida Department of Agriculture released a list of more than 60 plant nurseries meeting the most basic qualifications to grow medical marijuana. At the public hearing, attorney Steve Garthe said regulators need to require dispensary owners to live in Florida.

“And unfortunately as you’ve drafted it now,  what I could envision is basically someone who is a qualified license holder just being, putting their qualification on sale to the highest bidder," he said. 

One speaker introducing herself as “Heather Sabanovski, master grower" said rampant speculative business dealings are already happening.

“It’s almost like a bloodbath out there, guys, I gotta be telling you,” she told officials with the state Office of Compassionate Use. “I’ve been talking to a lot of people, and you’ve got people buying out people, you’ve got all kinds of stuff going on that’s covert and secretive and—oh my gosh—and its’ like I want to move to a state where this is legal and not have to go through this.”

In the most recent draft of rules, regulators say nurserymen would be required to hold at least a 25-percent stake in the operation. 

The rulemaking is part of a law passed this year, nicknamed the "Charlotte's Web bill," that legalizes only non-euphoric marijuana taken through non-smoked methods. Lawmakers decreed just five dispensaries can distribute it. But the details remain hazy.

While some entrepreneurs talk about using synthetic chemistry to comply with high-inducing THC levels allowed in the law, others say 100 percent organic plants are the way to go. Seth Hyman wants medical marijuana as soon as possible for his daughter, Rebecca. She suffers from up to hundreds of seizures per day. He says an all-natural product is the only acceptable answer.

“Now you start taking synthetic compounds and mixing it into the bunch. There’s no studies on that. We don’t know how patients are going to respond,” he says.

Perhaps the most contentious proposed rule has been the lottery system for choosing the five regional distributors. Health regulators say it’s necessary to avoid lawsuits. But one hopeful dispenser, Roy Davis, says the proposed regions contain vastly different numbers of people, with almost seven times as many people in Central Florida as in Northwest Florida. Davis wants to get the Legislature to split the Central Florida region into two.

“I’d be happy to try and convince Governor Scott that that would be an appropriate action,” he said Friday.

Finally, the proposed rules say dispensaries can transport medical cannabis by truck anywhere in the state, leading some commenters to say growers shouldn’t be solely responsible for potentially dangerous transportation and should be allowed to contract with existing trucking companies.

And then, there’s something the rules don’t address: where dispensers will store their profits when no bank insured by the FDIC can legally do business with someone in the marijuana business.

“Potentially 4-to-5 billion dollars a year in sales: That’s a lot of $20 bills, that’s a lot of $100 bills,” says Jeffrey Sharkey. He runs the just-established Medical Marijuana Business Association along with cofounder Taylor Patrick Biehl.

In an interview in his office, Sharkey says his 15 members and the callers tying up his phone line every day are eager to see the final rules—especially with Amendment 2, a broader medical marijuana amendment, looking poised to pass.

“This is a whole new day in Florida,” Sharkey says. “And you could feel the tipping point, not just in Florida but nationally.”

With a recent public opinion poll showing almost 90 percent of Floridians support medical marijuana, chances are health regulators won’t be packing up their comment cards any time soon.