Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Health

Entrepreneurs aren't waiting for lawmakers to plan the future of medical cannabis

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WESLEY CHAPEL — Mute the sound and it would have felt like a real estate seminar. The hotel conference room was half full. It was an older crowd, professionally dressed. Notepads sat on top of the tables, which hid the khakis below.

The topic, though, was cannabis — don't get caught calling it marijuana around here — at the first Florida Medical Cannabis Conference and Exhibition, which started Friday and runs through the weekend at Saddlebrook Resort.

The conference spoke to the rising legitimacy of cannabis, and sought to educate those interested in using cannabis for medical treatment, or very interested in the business opportunities of doing so.

In other words, it was people who aren't waiting around for Tallahassee to make a decision.

"This is going to happen," said Dr. Allan Zubkin, a Clermont physician who is already certified to recommend medical marijuana to patients under Florida's Compassionate Use Act. "I want to be part of the revolution."

The revolution started last year in Florida, when voters passed Amendment 2, a constitutional amendment designed to expand medical marijuana legalization beyond the limited use allowed under the Compassionate Use Act. But before departing Tallahassee earlier this month, the Florida Legislature failed to pass rules regulating marijuana's medical use.

Negotiations over regulations that are needed to implement the amendment stalled because of disagreements on the number of dispensaries each marijuana grower would be allowed to open. The Legislature will either reconvene in a special session this summer or let the Florida Department of Health's Office of Compassionate Use draw up the rules.

Until then, there's work companies can do to prepare themselves for when the rules come online, said Carlos Hermida, executive vice president of Florida Cannabis Coalition.

And, he said, the uncertainty isn't all bad, quoting the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu:

"In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity."

But the opportunities won't come without challenges. During a session entitled a "crash course" in Florida's cannabis industry, Hermida outlined the obstacles facing companies that operate in the cannabis space:

They find it hard to open bank accounts. That's because banks are regulated at the federal level, where marijuana remains illegal. For the same reason, finding credit can be difficult. And advertisers hoping to market on the airwaves, which are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, run into similar problems.

Still, there was plenty of optimism about the medical, and business, opportunities ahead.

"I see a huge opportunity to break into the industry right now," said Russell Hollander, 35, whose company, Care2Grow Inc., plans to sell high-quality, U.S.-grown hemp, which has low levels of the mild-altering tetrahydrocannabinol and high levels of cannabidiol.

The latter doesn't make people high and is thought to have medicinal benefits. Hollander said the fits and starts on regulation are all part of the process and will ultimately yield a better market.

The cannabis industry doesn't just support companies that grow, process and sell marijuana, but ancillary businesses as well. One such business is Compassionate Care Clinics of Pinellas, a company that will evaluate patients to determine if medicinal cannabis is right for their ailments.

The company's owner, Alex Adams, 38, of St. Petersburg said he came to the conference to learn about diagnosing patients and different treatment options. While his business won't be limited by the rules that will eventually govern Amendment 2, he has his own reality to contend with: planned obsolescence.

"For my part of the industry, it only lasts until it becomes recreational," said Adams, who estimates recreational use in Florida is only five to seven years away.

For others who attended the conference, the uncertainty surrounding the industry's regulation is less of an opportunity and more a point of frustration.

Melanie Cissone, 57, of Santa Rosa Beach said she attended to learn about the medicinal effects of cannabis. She's a full-time caregiver to her husband, who has a malignant blastoma in his brain.

Research suggests cannabis could help, she said, but Florida is behind the cannabis curve compared to other states that legalized it years ago.

"I don't understand why Florida isn't more ahead of the curve on this," Cissone said. "There are models out there."

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.

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