SARASOTA — When Cannabis-Rx bought a Super Walmart-sized boat plant here last month, the real estate investor said it was destined to become one of America's largest pot "cultivation parks."
Only one problem: Florida's vote on legalizing medical marijuana is still six months away. And it could take twice that long before a patient lights the state's first legal joint.
Regulators have said next to nothing about how medical marijuana in the Sunshine State would move from seed to sale. That hasn't slowed a rush of investors giddy for Florida's potentially vast legal-weed industry.
Entrepreneurs have in the last year filed for more than 80 Florida business licenses with marijuana-scented names. There is a Cannabis Clinic, a Cannabis Club, a Cannabis Consulting, a Cannabis Collective, a Cannabis Law Group, a Cannabis Hemporium and a Cannabisunshine Corp.
"It's like the early days of the Internet," said Walt Blenner, an attorney for Paul Caputo, a Palm Harbor dentist who has filed for three Tampa Bay business licenses with "medical marijuana" in the name. "Some people are jumping full-speed into this … and we're all sitting around trying to figure out what's going to happen next."
Pot pioneers are already making money in the 21 states, plus the nation's capital, that now allow medical cannabis. America's legal-weed market is expected to bloom to $2.5 billion this year, and pass $10 billion in 2018, according to analysts with ArcView Group, a canna-business investment network.
The stakes are especially high in Florida, which analysts say could become the second-largest medical-marijuana state in the country behind California, with hundreds of thousands of patients and $780 million a year in sales.
Whether any of these self-styled "ganjapreneurs" will get a shot at tapping that market remains a mystery. Startups here will likely face a gauntlet of unforgiving regulations, skittish banks and costly surprises, just for a chance at a cash-crop business that may never materialize.
But canna-business hopefuls say the risk is worth it if they can secure a piece of the next great American industry. Said one ArcView executive: "New millionaires and possibly billionaires are about to be made."
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Voters in November will decide the fate of Amendment 2, which would legalize cannabis for debilitating ailments as determined by a doctor, such as cancer, glaucoma or Parkinson's disease.
Though the measure needs 60 percent approval to pass, backers are optimistic. Every major public poll over the last year has shown statewide support averaging about 70 percent.
State lawmakers already support Charlotte's Web, a limited strain of marijuana known to lessen seizures in patients with severe epilepsy. Gov. Rick Scott said he would sign a bill into law allowing the non-euphoric cannabis extract to be sold as an oil in four statewide dispensaries.
The rules are not so carefully defined for the full medical-marijuana amendment. If it passes in November, the Department of Health would have until the following July to draft regulations, and until October to register medical-marijuana treatment centers and hand out patient IDs.
The National Cannabis Industry Association, a Washington-based trade group, estimated 260,000 statewide patients, a crowd the size of St. Petersburg, would each spend about $3,000 a year on medical marijuana. A Florida Department of Health analysis gave an even bigger estimate, predicting about 420,000 patients and 1,800 treatment centers.
Building a new infrastructure in Florida to move legal weed from farm to pharmacy could prove an extraordinary undertaking. There will be needs for cultivators, growers and trimmers; cannabis processors, cooks and concentrate makers; shippers, distributors and treatment-center operators; even, perhaps, "budtenders," to guide patients toward what to buy.
Then there are the support businesses: vaporizer and smoking-device manufacturers; insurers and security firms; cultivation-equipment suppliers and lab testers; even legal advisers, real estate agents and financial consultants.
Already in Tampa Bay, the startups range from a canna-business services firm in the Riverview suburbs to a medical-marijuana lawyer in Safety Harbor. Hundreds follow the Facebook page of Green Blossom Bakery, a proposed St. Petersburg sweets shop planning to offer marijuana edibles with "locally grown" ingredients in organic, gluten-free and vegan varieties.
"There is so much excitement, people are afraid if they don't jump out and do something immediately they'll get left behind," said Tom Quigley, founder of the Florida Cannabis Coalition, a Tampa business-consulting group.
Far from its stoner roots, the fast-growing industry is beginning to attract deep-pocketed investors and tech startups with more sophisticated ways of doing business. At a Boston canna-business conference last month, Florida Cannabis Coalition executive Pete Sessa said, entrepreneurs — "more Brooks Brothers than Cheech & Chong" — were talking marijuana stocks, venture capital and tech breakthroughs, like tracking cannabis using radio-frequency tags.
"It felt like opening day at Google," he said. "Or at least that's what I imagine it must have felt like to be in on something so big, so early … and know it."
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Each state has fired the starter's pistol on its legal-cannabis industry in a different way, making it tricky for startups here to find a role model. Arizona officials, for instance, handed out dispensary licenses in a lottery, deciding the fates of hundreds of business plans with a bouncing-ball bingo machine.
And that's just the start of the pitfalls. Annual treatment-center licensing fees could cost tens of thousands of dollars, pricing out smaller shops. The state could limit how much space is devoted to cannabis growing, bumping out spaces like the Cannabis-Rx mega-park. There could be strict zoning demands, local-government regulations or bans on operating too close to schools or other treatment centers.
Even the simplest luxuries enjoyed by small businesses are being kept from ganjapreneurs. Banks have proven reluctant to offer loans or open accounts, forcing some canna-business startups to stash corporate earnings in bags of cash.
Some market skeptics have poked holes in the excitement, arguing the legal-cannabis market would be economically brutal, hyper-competitive and will post razor-thin profit margins, at best. Mark A.R. Kleiman, a public-policy professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, told Bloomberg Businessweek, "I just don't see how there's money to be made producing an agricultural commodity."
Some businesses are already finding ways to profit without coming close to the crop. At Medical Marijuana Tampa, students have paid $499 for a four-week course on the history of marijuana, as well as its cultivation, demonstrated on tomato and pepper plants. The Florida Cannabis Coalition is launching a merchandise line with branded clothes, office supplies and smell-proof travel bags.
But for some upstarts, building a canna-business is about more than just the money. Moriah Barnhart, Renee Petro and Jacel Delgadillo, three Florida mothers who have championed a marijuana extract that would reduce seizures in their children, launched a company last month, Cannamoms, that would serve as their communications and fundraising arm.
Barnhart, whose 3-year-old daughter, Dahlia, has brain cancer, said she hopes the company will help the group push for cannabis availability and improvements, like lab testing and safer oil dispensaries. To raise money, they're also launching an official clothing and baby-wear brand, CannaBé.
"It's very difficult to have sick children and do this on top," said Renee Petro, 37, whose 12-year-old son, Branden, suffers from febrile infection-related epilepsy syndrome, a brain disorder. "But we want to be the forefront. We want to be the moms who help other parents, because a lot of people are afraid."
Llorn Kylo, the CEO of Cannabis-Rx, which has raised $30 million from investors and owns 37 properties that it markets to marijuana growers across the country, said it feels like the business "pulse in Florida is beating a little harder" than other states as entrepreneurs gear up for the months ahead. But not everyone, he added, will end up finding a place in the industry.
One woman near Port St. Lucie "with 278 acres of farmland called me to say, 'I've got all this land, let's grow pot together,' " Kylo said. "It was quite cute. But of course, I said no."
Times staff writer Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report. Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 893-8252 or [email protected]tampabay.com.