Medical cannabis is moving forward faster than many expected in the Sunshine State, but it remains a slow, muddled process that falls short of providing genuine help to many patients in need.
Trulieve, one of the six companies licensed in Florida to grow and dispense medical cannabis, harvested its first crop in early July and opened the state’s first medical dispensary on July 26 in Tallahassee.
The second grower-dispensary, Surterra Therapeutics, completed its first harvest in July and opened its Tampa dispensary in August.
But it remains to be seen how many patients will be able to utilize the dispensaries.
“Florida patients should be ready and talk to their doctor now about recommending therapeutic cannabis products to them, and doctors can now sign up to recommend therapeutic cannabis,” says Susan Driscoll, president of Surterra Therapeutics.
Purvin Shah, an osteopathic physician in Jacksonville, says he hasn’t seen a significant influx of new patients with the launch of Florida’s medical marijuana system — at least not yet. But despite the challenges, the program is moving ahead faster than Shah anticipated.
“We were all expecting that the first products wouldn’t be available until the end of August, end of September,” Shah says. “So having medicine available at the end of July was a real surprise. I don’t think a lot of patients even realized the option was there yet.”
By early August, only about 90 doctors out of roughly 20,000 in Florida had been certified to recommend cannabis to their patients. The certification process requires about eight hours of training.
“It’s actually a very streamlined process,” Shah says. “All the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed for us as physicians.”
For patients, however, the process is more complicated.
“I think it’s been a slow start,” says Robert Wallace, owner of CHT Medical, a Gainesville dispensary associated with Chestnut Hill Tree Farm, one of the state’s six approved growers. “Patients have to be under the care of a doctor for three months before they can receive their (medical) orders, and not a lot of doctors are certified yet to do that. It’s a very different regulatory model here. It’s much more restrictive (than other states).”
Wallace plans to open his dispensary this fall. A cancer survivor, he says he hopes to see the “pothead stigma” eliminated through educational campaigns.
“The misconceptions about cannabis as medicine are huge,” Wallace adds. “There’s a lack of knowledge in the public and in the medical community about the use of cannabis as medicine. That’s why Purvin Shah is important. He’s in the forefront of doctors that see the medical benefits of this — especially for fighting the opiate addiction crisis in this country. That’s a tremendous issue in America right now.”
This November, Florida residents will vote on Amendment 2, which would expand the current medical marijuana legislation.
The state’s narrowly defined medical marijuana law, which only allows low-THC strains, expanded somewhat in March when the passage of House Bill 307 made high-THC strains available to patients with terminal illnesses and less than a year to live. But that didn’t do much to actually expand access, says Ben Pollara, campaign manager of United for Care, the organization sponsoring Amendment 2.
“It was just kind of window dressing,” Pollara says. “For that, you need two doctors to say you’re terminally ill, and you need those two doctors to be certified. Finding two certified doctors out of the very small amount who have been approved is very challenging for patients.”
Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, agrees. He argues that the restrictive nature of the Florida system has been by design.
“The original law was designed to be politically expedient, but it was not a law aimed at meeting the demands of patients or even understanding the scientific consensus about marijuana as medicine,” Armentano says. “The regulatory restrictions were put in place to hamper access, not expand it for those who need it. So the big question I have is: for the facilities that have been approved, how will they see any return on investment if there are few patients in the program?”
So far, the state has six approved dispensing organizations attached to the six plant nurseries it approved for growing medical cannabis. They are: CHT Medical (Chestnut Hill Tree Farm), Grandiflora (San Felasco Nurseries), Trulieve (Hackney Nursery), Surterra Therapeutics (Alpha Foliage, Inc.), Modern Health Concepts (Costa Nursery Farms) and Knox Nursery.
None of the licensed growers will have high-THC strains available for terminally ill patients yet. The first dispensaries are likely to get those products by late September or October, Shah says.
With a small number of qualifying conditions in the program — cancer, seizures and persistent muscle spasms — even the recent inclusion of terminal illness hasn’t brought in many more patients.
However, Amendment 2 would expand the program greatly. It’s unclear at this time whether that would allow more licensed growers and dispensaries to open.
“If that passes, and the understanding is that it should, then we’ll have conditions like ALS, Crohn’s disease and many others added to that list,” Shah says. “It will absolutely open it up to more patients.”
Other conditions included in the initiative are glaucoma, AIDS, HIV, PTSD, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
“Basically this would leave it up to the physician to decide who qualifies and who doesn’t,” Pollara says. “Whereas the current law lists only a very limited number of conditions. This would also allow extracts and whole plant medicine, not just certain forms that are allowed under the existing law.”
Smokable products are currently prohibited under Florida’s medical marijuana program. Amendment 2 would allow the full range of cannabis oil, flower and edibles seen in most other medical marijuana states.
The inclusion of some high-THC strains into the current law should help the old system dovetail into the new one if Amendment 2 passes, Pollara says.
“The access will certainly lead to a significant expansion for a number of businesses that are allowed to operate in this space,” Pollara says. However, it’s unclear at this time whether Amendment 2 would allow more growers or dispensaries to be licensed.
No matter what happens, Wallace says his company is excited to see medical marijuana finally moving forward in Florida.
“Everything’s in process and we’re going forward on all fronts,” Wallace says. “We’re very excited to get to market. I think there’s a huge medical need for it here in Florida.”