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Before pot goes to polls, Tampa gets its first college of cannabis

Published Feb. 7, 2014

TAMPA — On the first day of class at cannabis college, the professor gave a quick survey of a long history: from a Chinese emperor's writings on hemp to the founding of High Times magazine.

But the students gathered in a red-carpeted meeting room of a Residence Inn didn't perk up until the lecture turned to botany, the foundation for cultivating medical marijuana — and, perhaps, making money.

"I think everybody in this room understands what a gold mine this is," said Carlos Hermida, the head professor at Medical Marijuana Tampa.

The ballot vote to allow the sale of marijuana for medical use in Florida is nine months away, but already some entrepreneurs are planning to tap into the market a positive vote would create.

If the measure passes, the Department of Health would have until July 2015 to write regulations for licensed dispensaries, or "medical treatment centers," the only entities that could sell or grow the pot in Florida.

Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, said it's impossible to predict business opportunities in a new market until there are regulations on details such as the number of dispensaries that would be allowed.

But that hasn't stopped Medical Marijuana Tampa from starting its $500, four-week course on the history and cultivation of medical-grade marijuana. The current seminar has about 20 students.

Though the company believes its profit will lie in the 15 treatment centers it hopes to open in the Tampa Bay area, it opened its school sooner to drive interest, said founder Jeremy Bufford.

"We wanted to do a real deep dive to experience cannabis from a historical, legal, botanical and pharmacological perspective," said Bufford, 33. "We want to brand ourselves, right? We want everybody to know we'll be the place to get your education about medical marijuana, and ultimately we'll be the trusted place to get your medicine."

To avoid breaking the law while teaching hydroponic methods, he said, they'll use tomato and pepper plants to demonstrate.

A handful of cannabis colleges exist, most notably California's Oaksterdam, sort of the Ivy League of such institutes. Oaksterdam was once on a large campus in downtown Oakland but downsized considerably after a 2012 raid by federal agents.

Hermida, the professor for Medical Marijuana Tampa, graduated valedictorian of his seminar in indoor hydroponics at Oaksterdam last November.

Bufford looks more like president emeritus of a college debate team. He says he doesn't smoke pot. A freelance IT consultant, he prefers a suit and tie, has ramrod-straight posture and answers questions in a clipped, rapid-fire fashion.

According to his resume, Bufford's duties at previous jobs include "creatively solving business problems" and "tracking key performance metrics." In describing a restaurant management job he once held, he claimed he "maximized bar profitability by ensuring portion control."

Expect the same seriousness with his potential pot business.

"I think I'm well suited for this role," he said. "I know we can create a profit center for each one of our units. If we move fast and move quickly, people will realize that and hitch their wagons to our star."

Bufford said he has seven paid staff members on board and projects hiring hundreds more if the dispensaries open. He said he's got about four investors who have agreed to put up money, though he's far short of his goal to raise $10 million in the first year. He said he used his own money to get the company off the ground.

"It's an inevitability," he said of medical marijuana in Florida. "It's not a question of if, but when."

Bufford already has made his first business blunder. He subleased space at a West Tampa building for offices and classroom from an existing tenant who did not have permission to do so, said Joe Del Rosal, chief financial officer for the building's owner, Oliva Tobacco Co. The owner asked Bufford to leave.

Hence, the provisional nature of the school, which was temporarily being held last week at the Marriott meeting room.

The students, many of whom declined to give their names, included a middle-aged woman in a conservative dress and heels; a young man who walked in late, motorcycle helmet in hand; a marijuana activist who gave his name only as "Captain Cannabis" and later donned a Zorro-style eye mask to appear on television news.

One of the students was Rachelle Roach, a holistic nutritionist who brought three books — "classics," she said — on marijuana.

She has been following the booming pot business in Colorado, which legalized marijuana for recreational use, and hopes Florida moves in that direction. But she said she believes even medicinal marijuana could create jobs, assuming doctors get on board with it.

"It's our job to give them the education," she said in class.

Others wondered how hard the ballot battle would be, considering their well-financed opposition. They mulled that problem for a while before Captain Cannabis raised his hand with some good news: He'd brought hemp brownies, enough to share with the class.

Times staff writer Stephen Nohlgren and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374.

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