In 2014, Florida’s legislature passed a law that would allow the use of medical marijuana that was low in THC and high in CBD, known as Charlotte’s Web. This strain is non-euphoric, meaning it’s not exactly the kind of bud that most of us would be looking for – but those hoping to use medical marijuana to control seizure disorders may find that the compound CBD is particularly useful in many cases; which is what eventually led to the signing of the “Charlotte’s Web Law” around the same time that Amendment 2 lost the election by a mere 2% vote.
It was more than six months after the bill was signed into law before we saw any progress at all, due to a lawsuit filed against the new law. Eventually, the judge threw out the case against the law in style, by reading an excerpt from the children’s book, Charlotte’s Web, after which the strain and law were both named. Unfortunately, rejoicing at this point was still too soon, as patients would find out, when they still did not have access to the medicine they were promised many months before.
Last fall, nearly 30 different nurseries around the state applied to become one of the state’s lucky 5 nurseries to be awarded a license to grow the medical marijuana. With such a limited number of licenses and such a large state, the restrictions surrounding who could apply for a license were extremely strict – in hopes of cutting down on the number of applicants. Those who managed to be one of the final applicants have been in business for years prior and have a number of assets that would make them a logical choice for the job.
In the end, five nurseries were chosen – one for each region of the state. But of course the awarded licenses were challenged, which automatically caused fear that there would be several more months of delay before patients would finally have access to medical marijuana. Luckily, the courts were truly hearing and understanding – for the first time – that patients were suffering while they fought over the logistics of the business.
The five nurseries that were awarded licenses were given only a matter of weeks to apply for approval to start cultivation – and soon enough, regardless of the court litigation to be had, cannabis plants would be in the ground. During this same time, a second measure was passed that allows the terminally ill diagnosed with less than a year to live to access full strength medical marijuana – between that and the pending Amendment 2, the courts decided to expand and allow one additional nursery to join in on the action.
Now, well over two years since the medical marijuana laws allowing the high CBD Charlotte’s Web strain were first signed, the plants are finally growing and doctors are preparing to start recommending it for their patients in need. Due to the nature of the laws, there are very few patients who will benefit from medical marijuana for the time being – but those who will are among the most ill in the state and deserve a medicine that could improve their quality of life.
So far, only a few have been able to get inside to actually see the marijuana gardens growing the medicine patients in the state of Florida have been waiting so long to access. The facility which is set to have their products on the market first (within the next month or so!) is Surterra, an Atlanta based start-up that has now partnered with Alpha Foliate with expectations of becoming one of the state’s largest producers of medical marijuana.
“It’s a very exciting place to be in the medical field in Florida right now, because this is not just a new medication we’re talking about,” said Dr. Joseph Dorn, Surterra’s medical director, whose career includes a dozen years in Florida hospice care. “This is a mindset transformation in the treatment of patients, probably tens of thousands of patients whose symptoms are not completely relieved right now.”
In order to get to the facility, which is located in a rural city outside of Tallahassee in the panhandle, the address was given to visitors verbally in order to keep the location a secret. Once reaching the building there is a chain-linked, barbed wire fence and 24/7 surveillance surrounding it to keep unwanted visitors on the outside. There are two checkpoints – each featuring an armed guard – before finally reaching the main building where the plants are raised.
Even after entering the facility there is additional security which checks IDs (for a third time) as well as taking possession of cellphones (likely so no one can take pictures inside the facility) – and these are just the precautions being taken for visitors. When it comes to those working within the building, things are likely even more strict in order to ensure that employees never come into possession of plants that are not theirs to take. (Plus, all plants are tracked by an individual barcode.)
Once plants are harvested, the leftover plant matter is ground up, practically to a dust, which is mixed into a compost in the back of the facility. They go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that every part of every plant is accounted for – they don’t want any mistakes in such a new industry, especially not before the products ever hit the shelves for patients to purchase.
“Nobody can slide away with it,” Driscoll said, motioning to the pockets in the protective jumpsuit workers are required to wear: “In fact these are sewn together.”
Currently there are multiple bags, vacuum sealed and packed with 441 grams each, sitting in a freezer in that same facility – and that is only their very first harvest. There is an array of plants in different stages throughout the facility. The first room is climate controlled and has bright lights and houses the plants for the first 28-31 days; then they are moved to a room that better simulates the day and night cycles and climates during season changes to ensure that the buds flower to their full potential.
As far as the ounces of high CBD marijuana sitting in those freezers, it is awaiting approval from the state for them to turn it into cannabis oil. Once they can do that, it will only be a matter of time before they are able to have products on the shelves. Finally, it sounds like it’s time that patients start looking into how to register to access the medicine they have been waiting on.
The difficult part now – and the last thing to likely cause a gap in patient access – is the regulation that requires that physicians have been with a patient for at least 90 days before they can recommend them medical marijuana. Currently, only 131 doctors in the entire state of Florida have taken the eight-hour course that certifies them to recommend medical cannabis – this plus the minimum 90 days means many patients will be waiting for access until they find a doctor and stick with them long enough.
Considering the state is expecting between 2,000 and 4,000 individuals will be able to qualify for medical marijuana under the state’s current laws, the number of doctors willing to recommend it is still relatively low. This would mean roughly 20-25 patients per doctor – of course, the chances that these doctors are spread evenly throughout the state are unlikely, meaning there will be some doctors with dozens of patients and some with very few.
With Amendment 2 pending until November, things are going to be moving somewhat slowly – but this is already more progress than many Floridians expected to see after the long wait to get things off the ground. A second facility is starting to grow full strength marijuana now for patients who fall under the “Right to Try Act” – and if Amendment 2 passes, they will likely increase their growth in order to have products on the market as soon as possible for patients.
While it may have taken far longer than it should have to get started, things are finally coming together – and just in time to ensure a short waiting period for patients who would qualify for medical marijuana if the ballot initiative is passed this fall.