The race to cultivate and distribute marijuana for a limited medical use began Monday when state regulators opened a daylong hearing on the draft rules to allow non-euphoric, non-inhalable cannabis to be developed.
The standing room only crowd in the Tallahassee hearing room was chock full of some of Tallahassee''s most prominent lobbyists as well as growers from Israel, Colorado and California and farmers from throughout the state as regulators work to enact the law passed last spring by lawmakers.
The plan is to create a statewide lottery, whose eligible participants would include the 41 eligible nurseries. The mother of Charlotte Figi, the Colorado girl whose parents worked to get the low THC strain of marijuana, was also in the crowd, as was Joel Stanley, the marijuana grower who developed the "Charlotte's Web" strain. Representatives of doctors, investors and biotech specialists who also want to get on the cannabis train also crowded the room.
Photo: Joel Stanley, Colorado grower
The proposed criteria is strict: the plants must adhere to the formula of no more than .8 percent THC or less than 10 percent CBD – or all of the product would be destroyed. Growers must inventory their plants, cuttings and seeds daily or be subject to penalty. Chemical additives must be screened and carefully controlled and the entire operation must be under lock and key.
The potential industry has already spawned a rush of businesses waiting to strike it rich in Florida - as the law passed by legislators allowing for the medical use of marijuana is considered just the first step in bringing the plant legally to Florida. The law is intended to help patients with severe epilepsy and other muscle diseases, such as Parkinson's, as well as patients with cancer, but an amendment pending on the November ballot would allow for medical use of the plant for a much broader array of ailments.
Regulators hope that the process they put in place this summer for the limited strain could be a blueprint for the wider law if voters approve it. It requires that a license will cost $150,000 and the grower must post a bond of $5 million. The investment also involves immense security and technology, and a requirement that growers fingerprint and screen their employees.
The law envisions growers becoming store owners, creating a series of dispensaries in each region of the state. The proposed rules suggest their stores be open at least 30 hours a week, and no later than 10 p.m. and the products they sell are limited: no edible cannabis products, like cookies or candy, and no cigarettes.
But several people testified that room must be made in the rules to allow the growers to get to the product without being subject to federal crimes for possession of the illegal drug. Others warned that the requirement that the growers be able to offer their product in any region of the state so as to allow price competition.
“Essentially you’re creating not an oligopoly but a monopoly in that region,’’ said Bill Pfeiffer, a former state administrative law judge. He also suggested that one dispensing organization should be allowed to offer its product in multiple locations within a region.
“I think the legislature has made it very clear they can offer it statewide or regionally as determined by the department,” he said.
Joel Stanley, one of the five brothers who developed the Charlotte’s Web strain in Colorado, said that there are many misconceptions that abound about the special strain. Every plant is unique and it is important to retain that genetic composition to obtain quality control, he said.
“What makes Charlotte Web particularly special is it does have that track record,’’ he said. “We have eight different phenotypic expressions of the Charlottes Web product…We choose to use the same one over and over again because we have found that others don’t have the same level of efficacy.”
He noted that the agricultural practices are important, as some applicants will be able to produce the strain more quickly and safely than others.
"If five make it through a lottery process and they all qualify under the applicants qualifications within the rules they are are still going to have extremely different levels of teams that they’ve assembled to prove that they can put this product out in bulk but also safely,'' he said.
Kim Russell, the Orlando woman who started the medical marijuana petition drive five years to help her father with Parkinson's disease, urged regulators to focus on getting the product to patients first. "This is the compassion act, not the green rush act,'' she said.