Florida’s young medical marijuana industry takes off

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“Before medical marijuana was legal, I was getting it illegally,” she said. “Now I can come here, and it takes less time than going to a pharmacy.”

Florida’s 16-month-old medical marijuana business is growing fast, as dispensaries and growers rush to establish themselves. It’s happening even as court battles over state regulations for the young industry rage on.

The state doesn’t track sales figures, but Florida’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use reported April 20 that more than 100,000 Floridians have signed up to receive medical pot, and the state is adding new registrants at a pace of about 3,000 a week.

Florida now has 13 companies with 34 medical marijuana dispensaries. There are three operating in Central Florida, all in Orlando, with several more in the works. About 1,300 doctors have registered as well to evaluate and approve patients for marijuana-based treatment of dozens of ailments.

It’s happened even as state lawmakers and local municipalities have put heavy restrictions on medical marijuana, which the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws said “is one of the more dysfunctional programs in the United States.”

“Rather than being a patient-centric program, it is largely a political expedient program, where the whims of lawmakers and regulators are placed above the interests of patients,” said NORML deputy director Paul Armentano.

Patients are prohibited from smoking or growing cannabis plants, restrictions that surprised many after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2016. Central Florida municipalities such as Lake County, Winter Park and Winter Garden have banned the shops.

Still, dispensaries have opened in every major population center in the state, and many plan expansions.

“Medical marijuana got off to a rocky start with implementation and the Legislature drawing the rules, but it’s pretty clear that it is popular,” said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida associate political science professor. “Lawmakers were less than thrilled with the idea of medical marijuana, so they put laws in place to restrict it to the degree that they thought they could.”

Florida’s licensed growers and dispensaries are careful to avoid being too specific when discussing the evolving rules but say business is expanding quickly, even though medical insurance won’t cover it.

“We are absolutely seeing growth take off,” said Victoria Walker, a spokeswoman for Quincy-based Trulieve, which has 14 locations in Florida. “It really comes down to physicians and access. As the physician count grew, so did the number of people who had access.”


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