It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing. That’s the general impression many people have about Florida’s low-THC medical marijuana program, which could start supplying patients within a few months.
On Feb. 24, Surterra Therapeutics, one of the five nurseries licensed to grow cannabis, announced that it officially began cultivation and will have products available as soon as dispensaries open.
“Surterra Therapeutics is moving as quickly as possible to provide patients with the safest therapeutic cannabis products,” Surterra president Susan Driscoll said in a recent press release. “We have plants in the ground and we are on track to open our first Surterra store in Tampa as soon as June. We are anxious to bring relief and help to the patients of Florida.”
Most advocates say Florida’s Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014 falls woefully short of providing the safe access needed to support patients. It was signed into law by Governor Rick Scott in June of 2014, just a few months before voters ultimately rejected Amendment 2, a far more comprehensive medical cannabis initiative. Despite receiving 58% of the vote, the constitutional amendment needed a 60% supermajority to pass.
United for Care, the organization behind the failed 2014 amendment, has regrouped and gathered enough signatures to put another amendment on the ballot this fall. The Florida Right to Medical Marijuana initiative addresses critics’ concerns about overly vague language in the 2014 amendment by specifying epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, ALS, PTSD, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis as qualifying conditions.
The 2016 proposal would task the state Department of Health with registering and regulating caregivers, but it would not allow patients to cultivate their own cannabis.
However, until further reforms are enacted, only patients with chronic seizures, muscle spasms, epilepsy or cancer will be able to access state-legal medical cannabis through the current program. The existing law limits medical marijuana to 0.8% THC and requires at least 10% CBD, and featured exceedingly steep minimum qualifications for licensure. Applicants had to be in business for at least 30 years and have the ability to grow at least 400,000 plants. The license itself cost $150,000.
Once selected for licensing, growers were required to post a $5 million performance bond.
Twenty-eight nurseries applied. Five nurseries were awarded licenses through a merit-based application process to represent different regions: Hackney Nursery Company in Quincy (Northwest), Chestnut Hill Tree Farm in Alachua (Northeast), Costa Nursery Farms in Miami (Southeast), Alpha Foliage in Homestead (Southwest) and Knox Nursery in Winter Garden (Central).
Alpha Foliage, the parent company of Surterra Therapeutics, and its affiliated nurseries maintain more than 350 acres near the southern tip of Florida. The company has been growing tropical foliage for more than three decades, and sells about 2 million fern baskets annually, according to a Miami Herald story from 2014.
Although Surterra is pushing forward with cultivation, the program and its licensees are not without controversy.
In December 2015, 11 nurseries filed challenges to the state Department of Health’s licensing decisions. Three nurseries followed through with a joint lawsuit against the Department of Health, Chestnut Hill Tree Farm, Knox Nursery and Surterra Therapeutics, claiming the applications “fail to meet even basic qualifications,” according to a press release by attorney James McKee.
Surterra received its authorization to begin cultivation on Feb. 12, one day after its Department of Health inspection. It was the first licensee to receive its inspection.
Including its cultivation centers and dispensaries, Surterra Therapeutics has plans for more than 15 locations and projects an investment of more than $13 million.
“We truly believe that this is a revolution in patient wellness, and Florida is setting the national standard for a responsible, patient-focused program,” Driscoll told the Associated Press in December of 2015. “We see a big shift in patient preferences toward all-natural treatments, and cannabis extracts are at the heart of this trend.”
The company expects to create more than 50 jobs over the next several years. Dispensaries are already in the works for Tampa, Miami, Orlando, Tallahasee and Jacksonville.
Surterra will utilize an indoor cultivation facility, with an on-site extraction space “to safeguard product quality and safety,” the company said. “Each of the facilities will be maintained in cleanroom conditions to help protect plants from outside toxins or pollutants and to ensure the most natural and pure therapeutic cannabis products.”