An accident during military training exercises left Auburndale, Florida, resident Michael Blackburn with a herniated disc in his back, accompanied by muscle spasms and nerve pain. At first, Blackburn tried the legal route: He used prescribed pain relievers and opiates to ease his pain. What followed, he says, was a destructive downward spiral of addiction and weight problems due to the side effects of the pills he was taking – they nearly ruined his body, his marriage and his life.
Things began to look up for Blackburn when his brother Mitchell, a college student at the time, suggested a rather unorthodox route to deal with pain: marijuana.
Blackburn was skeptical until he tried it. Marijuana not only helped with his back pain, he says – it also enabled him to quit the pills that were slowly eating away at every facet of his life. After kicking the pharmaceutical habit, Blackburn teamed up with Mitchell and their father, Robert, to start the Central Florida Farmacy, a company that he says will become a licensed cannabis grower and distributor of cannabis-related goods if Amendment 2 – the ballot amendment that will put the question of medical marijuana in the hands of voters – passes in November.
The company’s motto? “Safe access to high quality cannabis.”
“In Florida, there’s a huge problem with drug dealers, with crime. You don’t know what kinds of chemicals are in what you get off the street,” Blackburn says. “Our goal is to eliminate those problems by growing it organically, using no pesticides and no growth hormones. We want to provide safe access in a safe environment, safe neighborhood, where they don’t have to deal with drug dealers and stuff like that.”
While the Farmacy is not yet out of diapers, it is just one of many eager upstarts passionate about starting medical marijuana dispensaries in Florida. Others, such as the Apopka-based Marijuana Farmacy, the Cannabis Clinic of Orlando and many more, have also cropped up in recent months, adding to the ever-growing landscape of hopeful marijuana dispensaries waiting with bated breath for November’s verdict.
Yes, it seems the marijuana business is budding in Florida. The striking thing about those getting into the medical marijuana business is their often intensely personal reasons for doing so. Blackburn’s trial by cannabis is only one such story – many of those entering the medical marijuana industry are dissatisfied with the state of over-the-counter pain medication and want a better alternative for themselves or their loved ones who are suffering. As a result, they see the plight of others, even those they have never met. The ability for empathy is widespread among medical marijuana dispensary hopefuls.
“We want to help other people suffering from pain and diseases, and provide them the same relief I was able to have,” Blackburn says.
One shepherd leading the slew of eager entrepreneurs through the wilderness of Florida’s murky medical marijuana waters is the Cannabis University of Florida. Started in April of 2014 in Jacksonville, the university is barely two months old. But the website has had more than 15,000 hits since it was established – a smoke signal that indicates that Florida is more than ready to talk about the issue more seriously.
The man behind the university is Donavan Carr. Carr carries himself with a dignified gait and focuses his attention squarely on you when he speaks to you. He is polite and gentlemanly, quick to laugh and armed to the teeth with factoids about medical cannabis, ready to disprove the common notions of the drug’s perceived danger.
The university puts on seminars each month in big Florida cities like Orlando, Daytona Beach and Jacksonville. The seminars, which cost around $300 and go from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., offer attendees the chance to speak to doctors, lawyers, CPAs and other marijuana experts about the ins and outs of the business.
“You can never go to enough seminars,” Carr says. “One 9-to-5 day is never enough. There’s so much to learn about dispensaries, growing marijuana, investing in the business … and there are lots of ancillary businesses: security, insurance, web design and development.”
Carr offers some basic tips on how to run a solid dispensary: Comply with the state regulations on the product (whatever they may be – it’s unclear right now what kinds of regulations will be in play if Florida approves medical marijuana). Pay your taxes. Acquire a reliable team of investors. Have enough capital to make and maintain an active supply of marijuana. Don’t put out an inferior product. Don’t put your dispensary in a location where it won’t be wanted (i.e. near schools, community centers, parks or day care facilities). Have a good, strong security system to protect your product from thieves.
Miami-based Florida Medical Marijuana Treatment Center founder Daniel Curtis says that an important factor, if you’re not growing marijuana yourself, is that you must have someone with experience handle the purchasing for you. Knowing how to identify good marijuana is crucial because testing it requires skills – mainly experience and knowledge of the product. Making sure marijuana is good for customers involves touch, odor and a visual examination via microscope – an intensive examination not fit for untrained eyes.
“Since that’s the person spending money on your business, it can cost you money. If you bring in bad product to sell to customers, it can take your business down the hole very quickly,” Curtis says.
Most specific details of what the medical marijuana field will look like are up in the air until the vote comes down on Amendment 2 this November. This is because it is impossible to know exactly what regulations Florida will slap on dispensary owners. Regulations could potentially limit the type of people allowed to grow marijuana (it likely won’t be any random stoner with a bong at the ready) as well as the number of official dispensaries permitted to operate in the state. The Charlotte’s Web bill, for example, requires 30 years of uninterrupted operational nursery experience to grow marijuana. It also limits the ability to grow to larger nurseries with more than 400,000 plants.
Blackburn is experiencing hands-on life on the cannabis frontier. He is currently searching for an appropriate office space in Orlando to expand the Central Florida Farmacy beyond its Facebook page and website, which are its only claims to life as of now. He is attempting to, in his own words, “start a fundable campaign.”
“We want to have a cannabis farm and start out with three dispensaries. Right now we’re in the process of gathering funds and seeking investors,” Blackburn says. “We’re trying to get funding to set up grow houses, maybe grow tomatoes or something like that until it’s legal.”
The problem, he says, is that many investors, playing on the cautious side, won’t invest in a business that hinges on growing marijuana, which is currently an illegal activity in Florida.
“A lot of people don’t want to work with it. They think the legislation isn’t going to pass,” Blackburn says.
He is preparing for the storm if marijuana goes legal in November by accumulating investors and drumming up hype. He has a financial advisor and sales team lined up, comprised of people he and his family have known for years. Some of his salespeople have 20 to 30 years of experience, he says.
The negative stigma attached to marijuana is yet another hurdle successful dispensaries will have to overcome through patience and education of the uninitiated, as well as maintaining a good public standing with their businesses. Blackburn’s parents were skeptical of the idea of using marijuana to treat pain because of that very stigma against it – until they saw the results, which they couldn’t argue with. Who says marijuana can’t bring a family closer together?