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Monday, Sep 22, 2014
Health & Fitness

Deciding pot rules a growing problem

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Published:   |   Updated: July 13, 2014 at 08:03 AM

Dennis Cathcart was confronted this summer with an uncomfortable question. Grow marijuana? At his family nursery?

“There’s probably just a handful of people like me that have never even tried the doggone stuff,” said Cathcart, owner of Tropiflora LLC in Sarasota. “I don’t care about it. I wish it wouldn’t come to Florida.”

But it is coming to Florida, on a limited basis, and if a constitutional amendment passes this fall — as polls suggest it will — medical marijuana is likely to expand exponentially here into an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The Cathcart family’s bromeliad operation on Tallevast Road is on a list of 46 nurseries in the state that meet the Legislature’s stringent requirements for providing medicinal pot. It appears that five of them will be granted the opportunity.

“This is not something I’m seeking, but if somebody can convince me it’s something we ought to be involved in, then.” Cathcart’s voice trails off.

He and his wife are in the process of handing down the family business to their two children, who are grown. The unthinkable is now getting serious consideration.

“It would be foolish not to at least talk about it.”

With the passage of Senate Bill 1030 on the last day of this spring’s legislative session, and Gov. Rick Scott’s signature on June 16, the “Charlotte’s Web” strain of cannabis will become legal in the state effective Jan. 1.

The strain is named for Charlotte Figi, a Colorado girl whose parents waged a successful campaign for its medical use there.

It is low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, and high in cannabidiol, or CBD, which does not cause a “high” but appears to effectively treat seizures from intractable epilepsy.

All eyes now are on the Florida Department of Health. The office is in the process of drawing up rules for carrying out the intent of the legislation, also known as the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014.

Looming over the process is Amendment 2, which will ask voters statewide Nov. 4 whether to legalize pot for “debilitating diseases as determined by a licensed Florida physician.”

That could include marijuana strains higher in the euphoric THC to treat diseases such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Parkinson’s.

Many of Florida’s conservative state leaders oppose the amendment in the first place. If it passes, they’re likely to direct the health department to interpret it as narrowly as possible — an approach they took in crafting the Charlotte’s Web legislation.

Will the rules for the first medical marijuana measure, then, serve as a template for the next one?

Not likely, say those on both sides of the marijuana debate.

“A lot of people have said that,” said Jeremy Bufford, who runs Medical Marijuana Tampa, a school for would-be pot entrepreneurs. “It’s difficult to attribute one scenario to the other, though, because so many things are going to be different under Amendment 2.”

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Chief among those differences would be sheer numbers. Though the health department hasn’t predicted how many patients could benefit from Charlotte’s Web, analysts have said the universe of potential patients includes the estimated 125,000 children in Florida who have intractable epilepsy.

It’s not known how many of these children would seek or benefit from the treatment.

In Colorado, which has also legalized Charlotte’s Web, the number is only about 180.

The health department has estimated that more than 417,000 Floridians would qualify for medical marijuana treatment under Amendment 2.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a sponsor of the SB 1030 Charlotte’s Web measure, said Amendment 2 “establishes its own framework” that wouldn’t likely be closely related to his legislation.

“The legislative intent of this bill was to allow the small amount of individuals that would be affected by this to get treatment,” said Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg. “What you’re seeing already is that it appears certain agricultural interests believe that there is a much larger expansion down the road. And I don’t know that that was the legislative intent of this law.”

The group behind Amendment 2, United for Care, considers the Charlotte’s Web bill overly restrictive, but its leader said the health department will likely have much more control over this fall’s initiative than it did with the Legislature’s marching orders.

“They can hope this will be the framework, but the constitutional amendment is going to make them go through a whole new rule-making process,” said Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United for Care. “Don’t think they can expect to make a photocopy of this.”

The likelihood of Amendment 2’s passage prompted the formation last week of Florida for Care, a group that has convened a “blue ribbon commission” of legal experts, patient advocates, health experts and business leaders to research and prepare an implementation plan for the broader measure. Whether lawmakers or the health department will heed the group’s advice remains to be seen.

The Vote No on 2 campaign dismissed Florida for Care as supporters of medical marijuana trying “to pass off their new shill group as watchdogs.”

In an email on the template scenario, a spokeswoman for the health department said only that the department is “currently focused on implementing the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014.”

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The health department has issued a 16-page draft rule on the act.

The department proposed allowing five dispensaries representing geographical regions of the state to grow, prepare and sell the low-THC marijuana. The central Florida region includes Tampa Bay area counties and stretches east to Volusia and Brevard counties on the Atlantic Coast.

To be considered for one of the dispensary licenses, a nursery must have been in business continuously for 30 years and already hold a license for 400,000 or more plants. There are 46 such nurseries in Florida, with a handful in the Tampa Bay area.

The grower must pay a $150,000 application fee and post a $5 million performance bond.

If more than one nursery were to apply in one region, the licensee would be chosen by lottery. There are strict personnel, security, technology and auditing rules.

Last week, the health department held a public hearing in Tallahassee on its draft rules. A Capitol hearing room was packed with lawyers, lobbyists and others with a stake in the impending pot trade.

Growers expressed concern about restrictions that shut out many from the list of 46. Others objected to the lottery strategy; some said nurseries should be judged on performance and merit.

State Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Fort Walton Beach and a key architect of SB 1030, lauded the health department for its draft rules and its process to implement them.

“I think they’ve created a great initial platform of ideas,” Gaetz said. “When any rule-making process is undertaken on a complex piece of legislation, there are always a few nips and tucks along the way. All in all, I think we have very strong evidence Gov. Scott’s administration is taking the implementation very seriously.”

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The rule-making in Tallahassee isn’t high on the agenda for all Tampa Bay area growers.

A Seffner grower refused to discuss the medical marijuana issue. A representative of Speedling Inc. in Ruskin said his organization was evaluating the situation, but foreign ownership could complicate things; the company is based in Singapore.

At Harrell’s Nursery in Plant City, owner Winfred Harrell said he’s been contacted by many consultants and potential partners, but “I’m not going to do that. I’ve been in business for 50-some years. I don’t want to go down that way.”

In central Florida, thick with nurseries, owners are starting to maneuver.

Eric Cord, co-owner and president of Windmill Farms Nursery in Zolfo Springs, said he’s spending plenty of time on the issue.

“It’s created another job for me,” Cord said. “Half my day now is spent discussing or researching stuff for this. If you don’t get on board and stay ahead of the curve, you’re going to be behind once things start falling into place through the department of health.”

In Sarasota, Cathcart, of Tropiflora, remains torn. “I don’t like it at all, to tell you the truth,” he said. “But if it’s strictly the medicinal stuff, somebody’s going to be doing it.”

 

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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