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Legal pot industry descends on Florida as voters consider medical marijuana

KISSIMMEE — Three thousand members of the nation's budding legal pot industry are visiting Florida this week — and not for the beaches.

"It has nothing to do with the climate or the attractions," said Chris Walsh, editorial director of Marijuana Business Daily, a trade publication that sponsors the twice-annual Marijuana Business Conference. "There's a lot of excitement about the Florida market."

Medical cannabis in the nation's third-largest state could open up one of the biggest markets in the world, a potential cash cow for companies looking for innovative ways to produce the drug and a massive patient base for researchers.

Florida also could be lucrative for ancillary companies, who came for the three-day event at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center hoping to sell everything from growing supplies to childproof packaging, even insurance policies to the niche market.

The first medical marijuana is supposed to be available in Florida later this year. In just a few years, Florida could be the second-largest marijuana market in the country.

But to get to that point, state law would have to change.

Floridians will vote this November on expanding medical cannabis to include patients with cancer, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.

John Morgan, the multimillionaire trial lawyer who financed a similar, failed initiative in 2014, said he's confident in his campaign's prospects. This year, he said, is a "tipping point" for cannabis.

An anticipated larger number of voters — particularly Democrats and millennials, who polls show are more supportive of medical marijuana — could push the group over the edge.

And Morgan hopes that supporters who wanted to see the drug legalized by the Legislature, rather than by a constitutional amendment, will realize that full legalization still hasn't passed in Tallahassee.

"We gave these jokers their chance twice," he said, "and they failed us twice."

Still, Morgan made a plea for help from those in the industry in a keynote speech at the trade show Tuesday.

"The reason it won't pass," he said, "will be money."

Already, Morgan's group has drawn opposition to its effort, which will be Amendment 2 on the November ballot.

Mel Sembler, a St. Petersburg developer and major Republican donor, said he will raise as much as $10 million to kill the amendment this year.

Since 2013, Morgan has funneled $6.8 million into United for Care, the group behind the medical marijuana initiative, according to state election data. But he's not ready to commit to a 2016 fight without support from within the industry.

"It's kind of like when I go to happy hour," he said. "Sometimes, I go to happy hour, have a drink and go home. Sometimes, I close down the bar and I end up at Waffle House at 3 in the morning. I don't know how this is going to end for me."

There is money to be made in the industry. That, after all, is why so many came to Florida.

Marijuana Business Daily estimates there will be as much as $4.3 billion in retail sales of the drug this year. And that could double by 2019 if states like Florida and Ohio legalize medical marijuana.

Currently, one type of cannabis is legal in Florida. It's low in THC and is used for children with conditions such as cancer and severe epilepsy. Later this year, a law will go into effect allowing terminally ill patients to use full-strength marijuana.

Just six nurseries have licenses to start growing and selling, but advocates hope to see that number expand if the state allows a larger number of patients access to the drug.

And businesses of all kinds are hoping to cash in on that potential growth. At least 21,000 companies are currently involved in the industry, Marijuana Business Daily estimates, and few of them are growing or dispensing the drug.

A walk through the trade show in Kissimmee reveals marketing companies, insurance firms, investors and agriculture suppliers, all focused on cannabis.

Take away the occasional pot leaf logo and themed names — Brand Higher, Dope Magazine, HerbFront — and it feels like any other trade show. Entrepreneurs showcase their latest innovations, scientists talk about the most recent studies and people in suits make connections.

And there's a buzz: Which states might legalize marijuana next? Is Florida finally going to pass medical cannabis? Might Missouri? Will California allow recreational pot?

"This is an industry like any other," Walsh said. "There's a perception in states that haven't legalized that it's a bunch of hippies walking around and that product is being sold on the show floor. That's not what this is."

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

Legal pot industry descends on Florida as voters consider medical marijuana 05/10/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 10, 2016 9:48pm]
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