ST. PETERSBURG --- Among topics that stir passionate interest, two that rank high are medical marijuana and craft beers.
A group of Tampa Bay entrepreneurs has ambitious plans to profit from both.
They are leasing a vast warehouse space in St. Petersburg where they hope to build Pinellas County's first medical marijuana greenhouse. And even if state officials don't approve the cannabis component, part of the space already is poised to become Florida's first commercial hydroponic farm for growing hops, a key ingredient in beer making.
"Hops and cannabis are very close cousins," says Brenden Markopoulos, president of Twin Bays Hops Farms.
Once home to a roofing-supply company, the long-vacant space on 39th Avenue N near the railroad tracks already has been permitted for the farm. It would provide fresh hops for Tampa Bay's robust craft-brewing industry and could produce the first harvest as soon as September, Markopoulos says.
Getting approval to grow medical marijuana will be far more difficult. The process started this month when Markopoulos appeared before the city's Development Review Commission seeking an exception to zoning rules to build a commercial greenhouse.
Commissioners deferred action. They told him to come back with more details about security and "odor reduction" after nearby residents expressed concerns about crime, lighting and the smell of marijuana possibly permeating their neighborhood.
"I don't oppose pot, just this facility," said Mirela Setkic, whose parents live a block away. "Does anyone want to buy homes knowing there is a huge marijuana greenhouse across the street?"
Approved in 2016 as Amendment 2 to Florida's constitution, medical marijuana is projected to become a billion-dollar industry in Florida. So far, though, only 13 businesses have been allowed to grow, process or sell it in the state.
Last year, a group of retirees on St. Pete Beach formed Gulf Coast Canna Meds with the goal of growing and distributing cannabis products. They linked up with Markopoulos, who was leasing the nearly three-acre warehouse space for a brewery he intended to open.
Although he is not involved in the cannabis venture, Markopoulos is working closely with Oscar Mouton, a founder of Gulf Coast Canna Meds and now its security director, to clean up the overgrown property once frequented by vandals and transients.
Mouton, tattooed and 6'5' , is a former Washington D.C. homicide detective and Marine. He gets emotional describing how he began to research medical marijuana after friends he served with in Afghanistan were prescribed psychotropic drugs and opioids "in abundance" when they returned home and were diagnosed with PTSD.
"Each and every one I talked to pretty much said, 'I hate living like this,'" recalled Mouton, who dreaded getting calls that yet another buddy had committed suicide.
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Two friends, though, started using cannabis when they got out of the military "and that changed their lives completely," he said. "I was sick and tired of attending funerals; that was my motivation to start saving veterans' lives."
At a public hearing June 6, Mouton and Markopoulos presented plans for the cannabis greenhouse to the review commission.
The 9,250-square-foot greenhouse would be built within the existing 22,040-square-foot warehouse. All inside air would be filtered through a carbon filtration system so "you can stand outside the building and not smell anything," Markopoulos told commissioners.
In areas where it abuts industrial usages, the complex would be fenced with barbed wire. More attractive fencing plus trees and shrubs would screen it from the small homes to the north, which are just outside the city limits. Security would include 24-hour armed guards, surveillance cameras and panic buttons.
John Barie, a member of the commission, called the security plan "simplistic."
"It does not strike me as a particularly sophisticated process," he said, noting that part of the plan includes "calling the police or fire department in cases of emergency."
"What we don't know," Barie added,'' is how susceptible a facility like this would be to that element of (drug-related) criminality."
Commissioner Chuck Flynt noted that other businesses have drugs on premise.
"I don't think we've ever had an issue with a CVS with controlled substances getting wrapped around this kind of security plan," he said. "I have a concern we're over-analyzing this property due to what's inside. Personally, I think it's a good use. Having this business in there will deter a lot of potential activity and I think the neighbors will be surprised by how innocuous it is."
Ultimately, the commission decided to wait for more information including comment from the police department. But Gulf Coast Canna Meds is unlikely to meet any objections from that source. This week, the department's spokesperson, Yolanda Fernandez, relayed Chief Anthony Holloway's position.
"The chief said that if it's a lawful business that received all the permits through the state and county and city, there is really no issue for us," she said. "We have (medical cannabis) dispensaries that have opened in the city and they seem to be very well-informed of the statutes and the law."
Gulf Coast Canna Meds does not yet have a license from the state to grow and distribute medical marijuana. The application process has stalled, partly because of lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Amendment 2.
Once the process resumes, perhaps this summer, "it's going to be very competitive," said Ben Pollara, executive director of Florida For Care, a non-profit that advocates for medical marijuana. "We're anticipating 100-plus applications for seven licenses plus one black-farmer license (earmarked by law for an African-American business)."
Applicants must show they have the financial ability to put their plan in place and either self-insure or post a $5 million performance bond. "Just to submit an application is a multi-hundred-thousand dollar deal," Pollara said.
Loraine Daughtery, president of Gulf Coast Canna Meds, said an affiliated company is prepared to apply when the time comes.
For now, though, the group is moving ahead with plans for the hydroponic hops farm.
"We are really excited about it," Daugherty said. "We have funding for the first (hops) greenhouse and would like to put two more on that site."
Already in place is a big lattice-like structure, which will contain trellis lines, a drip watering system and other equipment for growing hops. The farm could produce at least 11,000 pounds every three months, Markopoulus says, compared to one harvest annually in northern climates. A sample contract lists dozens of varietals of hops that could be available.
"All breweries are now consuming dried hops," he said. "We will offer the first fresh hops in the area. Brewers will come out and pick the hops with us."
Currently, craft brewers get most of their hops in dried, pelletized form from the Pacific Northwest, where 97 percent of the nation's hops are grown. Private growers as well as the University of Florida and federal researchers are growing hops on a small scale in Florida to see if it could become a viable industry in the state, much as blueberries have despite initial doubts.
Leo "LJ" Govoni, owner of Clearwater's Big Storm Brewing Co., likes the idea of using fresh, local hops.
"That's what we built our business on: buy 'made in St. Pete or Clearwater or Tampa' as opposed to 'made in Colorado,'" said Govoni, who also consults for other breweries. "The option to choose from the purchase of raw materials is never a bad thing, and if it's somebody around the corner from us that's always helpful."
Some nearby residents, though, told the Development Review Commission they're not wild about either usage for the warehouse property.
"One thing I don't want to smell is marijuana or hops," said Josephine Hampton, who lives 500 feet away. "I worked for Great Bay Distributors for eight years so I know what hops smell like."
She and other neighbors will get another chance to air their concerns, likely at the review commission's July 11 meeting.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate