Local entrepreneurs seek entry points into Florida's growing cannabis industry

Published June 9 2017

For nearly all of the entrepreneurs Pete Sessa meets, the stories start out the same.

It's begins with a family member, a child or a friend. Sometimes it's a neighbor or a teacher. But they all know someone who suffered through a debilitating disease. Then they see first hand how cannabis could have helped. That's what draws them into Florida's burgeoning medical marijuana industry.

As chief operating officer of the Florida Cannabis Coalition based in Tampa, Sessa aims to connect entrepreneurs with advocates and other business owners in the medical marijuana industry in Florida. The group hosts business networking and educational events across the state and attend regional and national conferences regularly. Businesses can join the coalition's 600-member directory or sign up for consulting, business development and co-working services through its sister company, Common Bond Collaborative.

"A lot of what we do right now is education" because the industry is still very much in its infancy, said Sessa. "People come to us with an idea but have no idea who to talk to in the industry or how to get started. Because the rules can change overnight, education is critical."

Medical marijuana is projected to become a $1 billion industry in Florida within the next three years. Only seven companies have been licensed by the state to produce, cultivate and sell it, though state lawmakers will increase that number by 10 this year. But there are tremendous opportunities for supporting businesses to get a piece of the pie, Sessa said. Among the members of the Florida Cannabis Coalition is Technical420, a research and analysis firm of cannabis stocks; House of Jane, a cannabis health and supplement company; VapeXhale, a vaporizer inhalation device company; and The Gluu, a wholesale retailer club for cannabis-related stores.

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"When we started out in 2014, there was this friction between advocates and those with business interests. They used to butt heads all the time," Sessa said. "We're trying to bring the two together because we see business as a driver of social change. We're seeing a lot more collaboration as marijuana becomes more mainstream. We like to call it compassionate capitalism because everyone knows somebody who could have benefited from taking something else other than a pill."

That's how Colette Florido started her business, CR World, which sells hemp-based topical sprays and oil-based products marketed specifically to the active senior citizen communities in the state. Based in St. Petersburg, Florido said she came up with the idea after seeing how products using cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive ingredient found in cannabis, helped her father who is diagnosed with dementia.

"He was very aggressive and frustrated," Florido said. "As his primary caregiver, working full time and a mother of two, I was struggling to find a way to help him. But then I tried CBD capsules and it improved his mood immediately."

Florido said she did her research. And then she chose to quit her job as a tour operator with a company that focuses on senior vacation packages to launch the company. She hired Sessa and Common Bond Collaborative to help her jump start the business.

She plans to officially launch this month after spending several months pitching to investors. Her business model calls for visiting potential customers in their own homes or in public spaces, similar to Avon makeup or Tupperware at-home party models. Customers will also be able to buy the products online.

Florido chose products that use hemp because it incorporates ingredients from the whole marijuana plant, including low THC properties and CBD elements.

"I've been surprised at how supportive people are," Florido said. "Even the most conservative people I know are interested in learning more about this."

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Nicole Leffler also sells CBD products, from lotions to oils, in her Sarasota store, Wild Ginger Apothecary. As a member of the Florida Cannabis Coalition, she's used her shop's education space to host cannabis networking events.

"I'm adding new (CBD) products almost every month. It's become a total growth area in our business," said Leffler, who notes that she managed a medical marijuana dispensary in Michigan before moving to Florida.

She joined the coalition because she couldn't find any other groups in the state that were promoting educational business opportunities in the industry.

"We don't have anything else like this going on in Sarasota," Leffler said. "I reached out because I wanted to be a resource to potential patients and to collaborate with those in the business. It's been helpful to meet the insiders, people with very in-depth industry knowledge and make connections."

Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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