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Florida's first walk-in clinics for medical marijuana are opening in Tampa Bay

Patient Julie DiPietrantonio, 67, of St. Petersburg, is examined by Dr. Howard Riker of Tetra Health Care. DiPietrantonio suffers from chronic pain caused by spinal stenosis, degenerative arthritis, and sacroiliitis. She is looking for relief by using medical marijuana. 
[SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Published Jul. 28, 2017

TAMPA — Inside a nondescript white-washed office building across from St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa is one of the state's first walk-in clinics for patients seeking medical marijuana.

Similar to a walk-in urgent care center, Tetra Health Care is a place where patients can see a licensed doctor about obtaining medical marijuana as a form of treatment.

Tracilea Young, president and founder of the California-based chain of clinics, saw an opportunity to expand in Florida after the most recent round of legislation passed in Tallahassee earlier this year. She's opened six Tetra Health Care clinics in Florida so far. Five of those are in the Tampa Bay area, including St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tampa and Brandon locations. She plans to open 20 more across the state by next year.

"With such a high population of aging communities, medical marijuana is needed here," Young said. "You wouldn't believe the patients we see who come in here with Excel spreadsheets detailing all the medications they're on and when they take which pill. I just want to cry for them."

Medical marijuana is a new but burgeoning industry in Florida, with laws that change nearly every year. Lawmakers have limited the selling and growing of marijuana to seven companies, but that number will expand to 17 this year, based on last-minute legislation that came out of a special session in Tallahassee earlier in this summer.

"Florida is the No. 1 state in terms of attracting marijuana companies right now," said Pete Sessa, chief operating officer and co-founder of the Florida Cannabis Coalition. "It's the newest medical marijuana state. A lot of these companies want to expand and Florida is a natural next step for a lot of them."

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Young sees a business opportunity in being the intermediary between the Florida Department of Health and the companies licensed to grow and sell cannabis in the state. Tetra physicians will write the necessary "recommendations" (doctors aren't allowed to call it prescriptions) for patients to fill at statewide dispensaries. Tetra charges $198 for the service.

Potential patients shouldn't expect to walk into a Tetra Health Care center and walk out with a doggie bag of weed. It doesn't work that way. Patients need to bring a valid Florida I.D., and proof of residency in the state for either a walk-in or appointment. Staff walks potential patients through the criteria required by department of health to help them register as a patient. Once an applicant pays the $75 state fee and receives their registration I.D. card in the mail, they can go to a dispensary with the recommendation they receive from a Tetra physician to fill an order.

While Tetra isn't affiliated with any statewide dispensing company and patients can fill their orders at any dispensary, Young has been impressed with some more than others.

"Knox Medical and CHT are all doing a great job with customer care," she said.

Young, 51, opened the first Tetra Health Care clinic in her home state of California in 2015 after she watched the father of her eight children suffer through stage four throat cancer.

"It was an awful experience. He was so sick," said Young, who has managed plastic surgery centers in the past. "So we opted for medical marijuana and were just so surprised with what the experience was like."

Young said the first time she and her husband went to get a recommendation from a doctor, they waited in a warehouse for hours. The doctor wrote the recommendation and quickly moved on to the other people waiting in line. Young decided she wanted to provide a more professional and customer-centric experience for patients.

Related Coverage: It may be legal now, but opening a medical marijuana store in Florida is harder than you think

"We got into the business 19 years late in California," she said. "But we've learned a lot. Our patient base is strictly medical. We've got to be one of the only centers in California that turns away recreational users."

Young has traveled to Tallahassee three times since last November to advocate for laws that help patients.

"I don't see the laws going backward at this point, but it's tough to predict what could happen in the future," she said about the current legislation in Florida. "A lot of people voted for Amendment Two in Florida. Finally legislators are listening to what's happening."

Young's clinics in the Tampa Bay area see about 13 patients a day, on average. Inside, the clinics look like any other doctor's office. Patients are greeted by reception staff adorned in medical scrubs. They receive a routine wellness exam and each exam room looks similar to any other doctor's office.

"The level of care is what is most important to me," Young said. "There are a lot bad actors out there, which makes it challenging for those of us who are doing things right."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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