Wednesday, September 19, 2018
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PolitiFact Florida: Fact-checking claim that Amendment 2 will bring more pot shops than Walmarts and Walgreens

Opponents of Florida's medical marijuana amendment have fired up a new round of attacks, claiming there will be a dispensary on practically every corner if voters approve the initiative.

In a three-minute ad released May 16, the group Vote No On 2 calls Amendment 2 "a scam to legalize pot." Should the measure pass, they say, it's likely that places to buy medical marijuana will outnumber two large chains.

"Looks like Amendment 2 will put almost 2,000 pot shops in Florida … more pot shops than Walmart and Walgreens combined," the video says.

While polls say medical marijuana is enjoying about 80 percent support among voters, Vote No On 2's figures spark an interesting point. Would the number of medical marijuana dispensaries outnumber Walmarts and Walgreens locations in Florida?

That's possible, according to one state estimate, but the figures are a little hazy.

United for Care, the group behind the measure, altered the language of Amendment 2 set for the November ballot to address some concerns that hounded the failed proposal in 2014. The amendment now requires parental consent and doctor certification for minors and more clearly defines the medical conditions it covers: cancer, HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder, Crohn's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis "or other debilitating medical conditions of the same kind or class as or comparable to those enumerated," with a doctor's recommendation.

It works like this: If a patient with one of these conditions gets the okay from a doctor, he or she (or a certified caregiver) will get a state-issued ID card and be able to go to a state-regulated dispensary to buy marijuana.

So how many dispensaries would there be? The proposal leaves the details of medical marijuana regulations up to the Legislature and the Florida Health Department. Legislators would need to pass a bill for medical marijuana and the health department would develop regulations. There could be as few or as many dispensaries as the state wants.

There is only one estimate for how many patients and dispensaries there would be: a 2015 health department analysis.

That report used state demographic data to estimate 440,552 patients in Florida would qualify for medical cannabis. The amendment would lead to 1,993 registered treatment centers, the agency said.

United for Care doesn't dispute the figures, because the health department's analysis is the only study that's been done.

In any event, 1,993 dispensaries would outnumber all of the Walmarts and Walgreens in Florida. The video correctly shows 840 Walgreens drug stores in the state, but its citation of 191 Walmarts is outdated. A more recent list shows 223 Walmart supercenters and 10 discount stores. (Neighborhood Markets and Sam's Club stores are not included in either count.)

Vote No On 2 spokeswoman Christina Johnson said the group chose those retailers to show how ubiquitous dispensaries would be should the amendment pass. It may be better to compare so-called "pot shops" to the overall number of pharmacies rather than big chains with pharmacies. There are 9,725 licensed pharmacies in Florida.

For another comparison, the state counts 2,082 active licensed veterinary clinics and 1,893 package liquor stores.

Mile-high estimate

With so little spelled out in the proposed amendment, we wondered how the health department arrived at its estimate.

The analysis used Colorado, with about 5.3 million people, because the state has allowed medical cannabis for years and has a broad baseline of data. The report says there are 515 licensed medical marijuana centers as of October 2015 (there are 528 now, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue) serving almost 114,000 patients. Analysts then scaled that up to Florida's population of 20 million to get 1,993 dispensaries.

Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies and the prolegislation Marijuana Policy Project, said of the 24 states and the District of Columbia allowing medical marijuana, it's misleading to use either Colorado or California as examples for Florida. Not only did Colorado decriminalize recreational marijuana use in 2012 — its 421 retail shops are counted separately from medical dispensaries — but both states lacked the kind of initial regulatory oversight Amendment 2 would require.

A better state to look to would be New Mexico, O'Keefe said, because its law required a licensing program. New Mexico had 23 dispensaries for its 2 million residents, expanding to 35 in 2015.

Extrapolating Florida's total based on New Mexico would net far fewer dispensaries, she said. If it were based on total land area, Florida could limit the number to about 16. If there were the same number of dispensaries per capita as New Mexico, there could be about 340.

Overall it's important to remember that while the health department report is the only real estimate available, this figure isn't definite. The real number would be hashed out when the amendment passes.

The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details. We rate it Half True.

Edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com/florida.

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