Growth market: The rush to make a buck in Florida’s still-hypothetical medical marijuana industry


ADAPTIVE REUSE: Medical Marijuana’s HQ is located in a former probation office in Sulphur Springs. - TODD BATES
  • Todd Bates
  • ADAPTIVE REUSE: Medical Marijuana’s HQ is located in a former probation office in Sulphur Springs.

I’m just going to come out up front and say I bought some weed over spring break — part of the grueling research that journalism occasionally calls for. It was a gift for a friend, of course, and although it’s unlikely I’ll ever get a job in the State Department now, I should note it was perfectly legit in the state purchased, and taxes were paid to the fine people of Colorado for the one gram of organic sticky green Indica/Sativa hybrid (12.9 percent sales, 15 percent excise tax). From what I heard, it was very relaxing.

This quasi-confession is made after careful consideration of the shifting dialogue on marijuana prohibition in the United States. As every stoner in the country knows, voters in Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana in 2012. Since then, Americans are having candid discussions about the drug war, the benefits of medicinal use, legalization, and the myriad business opportunities that await. With medical marijuana now legal in 20 states and 13 more considering it this year, the stigma surrounding the drug seems to be quickly… going up in smoke?

Of course, it helps that there’s a whole lot of money to be made. If Floridians vote yes on Amendment 2 this November to legalize the cultivation, purchase, possession and use of marijuana to treat medical conditions, it could light up a whole new industry in the state. The $1.4 billion medical and legal recreational marijuana market is projected to grow to $10.2 billion over the next five years. That kind of money has sent entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and business-minded marijuana lovers scurrying to cash in on the “Green Rush.”

On a recent Saturday at the Sheraton Suites Westshore in Tampa, over 100 people paid $299 a head (you do the math) to hear veterans of the marijuana industry discuss what it would take to make it in Florida’s legal pot industry. The one-day class, hosted by the Cannabis Career Institute (CCI) — “America’s Premiere Cannabis Business Seminar” — focused on teaching a classroom comprised of lawyers, accountants, businessfolk and stoned dreamers how to navigate the complex world of federal and state marijuana laws and set up business plans for medical marijuana dispensaries and grow operations.

“What we’re seeing is a tidal wave of ‘We’re not gonna take it anymore,’” said Bob Calkin, president and founder of CCI. Calkin hosts a seminar in a different city each week and bases his lectures on his more than 30 years of experience as a dealer in the Hollywood hair-metal scene. Over time, Calkin grew his business up from the black market to a licensed, highly successful medical marijuana delivery service in Los Angeles. He believes the next decade will see every state legalize marijuana to some degree. “The health benefits are no longer deniable and because of this, the age of marijuana prohibition is coming to its inevitable end.”

CCI is based in California, but offers classes all over the country. In coming months, a majority of them will be offered around the Sunshine State, based upon strong demand from folks here intent on breaking into the industry. These high hopes seem to be justified — according to a January CBS News Poll, 86 percent of Americans think doctors should be able to prescribe marijuana for medical use. And across the country, after watching millions of tax dollars roll into Colorado since recreational marijuana became legal in January, advocates in states like Massachusetts, Alaska and Oregon are pushing their states to follow Colorado’s lead in legalizing the plant. Here in Florida, 74 percent of registered voters say they support medical marijuana. 

By all accounts, America is about to get a lot more high.

It’s not just out-of-towners (carpet-baggers? nickel-baggers?) trying to cash in on Florida’s weedy potential. Businesses with similar game plans are springing up right here in Tampa Bay.

On the second floor of a long-neglected building that ironically once served as a probation office in Tampa’s Sulphur Springs neighborhood, a new kind of school is in session. For $499, students can enroll in an intensive four-week course — “Education in Cultivation,” teaching advanced growing techniques for medical-grade marijuana. Almost 100 people have completed the class so far.

The course is part of the “Cannabis College” at Medical Marijuana Tampa, a first-of-its-kind enterprise for the area and the brainchild of 33-year-old entrepreneur Jeremy Bufford. “We want to come out of the gate as a leader in the local medical marijuana industry,” says Bufford. “What we’re doing is unlike anything else being done in the state.”
“We want to come out of the gate as a leader in the local medical marijuana industry,” says Jeremy Bufford of Medical Marijuana Tampa. - TODD BATES
  • Todd Bates
  • “We want to come out of the gate as a leader in the local medical marijuana industry,” says Jeremy Bufford of Medical Marijuana Tampa.

Bufford, a clean-cut former IT consultant, says his career switch was inspired by his father, a high school band instructor who fell ill in 2008 and underwent a complicated hernia surgery. “He was bedridden, frail, constantly nauseous,” Bufford says. “He didn’t want to risk a heavy legal drug like Oxycontin or anything like that, so he tried marijuana and the results were amazing. His appetite returned, the pain and nausea went away, and he could finally function. It saved his life.”

If medical marijuana passes in November, Bufford plans to be among the first to begin cultivating and selling marijuana through dispensaries scattered throughout the Tampa Bay area from Manatee to Pasco Counties, carving out an early foothold in what could be a very large market. To help him accomplish this, he’s wooed a number of investors and hired 18 employees, including a team of marijuana experts with years of experience. Carlos Hermeda, 30, is a Miami native and USF alumni who became a certified cannabis horticulturalist after graduating at the top of his class from Oaksterdam University, a highly regarded California medical marijuana school before it was raided by federal agents in 2012 for an illegal cloning operation. After working as a grower and bud tender in that state’s medical marijuana industry, Hermeda returned to Florida to help kickstart Medical Marijuana Tampa.

In addition to growing eight strains of marijuana (two Indicas, two Sativas, and four hybrids), Hermeda says his operation intends to manufacture oils, tinctures, and “standard medical marijuana products.” Medical Marijuana Tampa also intends to open a laboratory for high-performance liquid chromatography testing to ensure appropriate levels of cannabinoids and THC in the medicine. They hope to be first in line for a state contract.

Of course, all of this is contingent upon Amendment 2 passing in November, but Bufford says that even if the amendment fails, Medical Marijuana Tampa will continue to offer cultivation classes and seek approval to begin growing Charlotte’s Web, a strain of low-THC marijuana used to treat chronic epilepsy, approval of which is currently being debated in the Florida Legislature. “Even if it doesn’t pass this time, it will eventually… we have contingency plans.”

The success of Amendment 2 depends entirely upon whether or not a majority of Florida voters have shaken long-held marijuana taboos. Increasingly, Florida Republicans are indicating that they have. Earlier this month, State Representative Charles Van Zant, considered one of Florida’s most conservative legislators, not only voted to support the Charlotte’s Web medical marijuana bill, but requested that the amount of THC acceptable by law in the drug be increased to make sure it really works. Acceptance of medicinal uses of marijuana, even in conservative Southern states, seems to have gone mainstream. South Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee all have pending medical marijuana legislation this year, and last month in Alabama, politicians on both sides of the aisle stood up and started chanting for the state to pass its first ever medical marijuana bill crafted to help children who suffer from epilepsy.

At a recent Tampa Bay Young Republicans meeting, it was hard to find a conservative in the club who didn’t support Amendment 2. “It’s hypocritical not to,” said Adam Smith, a 37-year-old accountant. “We conservatives stand for personal freedom and responsibility, limited government, and state rights — this is a patient rights issue.” The featured speaker for the Young Republicans this month was none other than John Morgan, the financial force behind Florida’s medical marijuana initiative. In perhaps an unconscious acknowledgment of the financial opportunities that exist in medical marijuana, the club charged $10 a head for this particular monthly meeting — and offered catering and valet service. Meetings the rest of the year are free.

With all of the frenzied speculation surrounding the Green Rush, it’s easy to see how it could become “The Green Bubble.” Investors are flooding money into pot stocks, and share prices of brand-new businesses are going off the charts. Over the past year, a company called CannaVest, specializing in industrial hemp products containing cannabidiol, saw its stock soar 1,260 percent, creating, at least on paper, the first pot stock billionaire. A recent cannabis job fair in Colorado attracted over 1,200 people with a 30-minute wait out the door. “This is going to save the economy,” says John Zeit, formerly of High Times magazine and now vice president of the Cannabis Career Institute. “We have 20 pot stocks currently traded on NASDAQ and many more coming. There are thousands of jobs being created from this industry.”

All of this for a product that is technically still very much illegal under federal law. Although President Obama has said that his administration will not enforce the Controlled Substances Act, there are no guarantees for the future. In Florida, there are signs that the Republican-controlled Legislature will heavily restrict the number of medical marijuana businesses approved if Amendment 2 passes, perhaps instituting a lottery system as other states have done. As of this week, there are already at least 30 corporations registered in Florida with marijuana or cannabis in their titles. Many of them are simply placeholders waiting for what happens in November.

Bufford of Medical Marijuana Tampa acknowledges that there are a lot of unknowns in Florida’s hypothetical marijuana-related commerce industry, but that doesn’t give him pause. “You have to take a calculated risk to do great things,” he says, grinning widely as he offers up one of his favorite quotes from Warren Buffett:

“When everyone else is timid, be bold.” 

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