APOLLO BEACH — Three years ago, doctors gave Valerie Hilton of Seffner the grim news: She had stage four liver disease.
Treatment, which included a number of pills, began immediately. A firm believer in holistic medicine, Hilton decided to try cannabis. The results were surprising.
"My doctor didn't approve of cannabis," she said. "I was doing it on my own and not telling her and she was wondering why my test results were coming back so amazing."
Now, Hilton has a place close to home to continue her treatment with the opening Saturday in Apollo Beach of a state-approved medical marijuana dispensing location operated by AltMed Florida. The location off U.S. 41 is the first of 25 the Sarasota-based company plans to open in Florida.
AltMed Florida chose the Apollo Beach site to serve the many potential customers in fast-growing south Hillsborough County and beyond. So far, it's the only dispensary between Bradenton and South Tampa. It's one of four dispensaries in Hillsborough County and the only one outside the Tampa area. The other three are Liberty Health Sciences, 2605 W Swann Ave; Surterra Therapeutics, 2558 E Fowler Ave; and Trulieve, 8701 N Dale Mabry Highway.
The road to a grand opening started in 2014, said AltMed Florida chief executive officer John Tipton.
"It's nowhere near where it needs to be at, but I think the state has made some pretty good inroads in streamlining the process," Tipton said. "We're hoping future dispensaries will be a little easier."
AltMed Florida plans to open its second dispensary in Sarasota by mid-August and a third one off of North Dale Mabry Highway is in the planning stages, he said. The company so far has 60 strains of cannabis under development, said Michael Smullen, AltMed Florida chairman, and markets under the name of MÜV products.
AltMed, in partnership with Plants of Ruskin, cultivates its own cannabis in a 150,000-square-foot installation next to the Apollo Beach dispensary.
The company expects to see the number of medical marijuana patients and dispensaries expand in Florida during the years ahead, said Todd Beckwith, global marketing director.
According to an update Thursday from the state Office of Medical Marijuana Use, there were 126,679 patients in the state registry, along with 1,506 qualified physicians, 43 approved retail dispensing locations and 13 approved medical marijuana treatment centers.
In 2016, Florida voters approved Amendment 2 allowing doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to patients with debilitating conditions. State lawmakers limited the scope of its use to oils, sprays, tinctures, vaping and edibles.
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Complaints poured into the state about the ban on ingesting marijuana through smoking and about wait times for medical marijuana cards.
Smokeable marijuana would be allowed under a court decision earlier this month by a Leon County Circuit Court but an appellate court stayed the ruling to allow for an appeal.
Meantime, AltMed Florida developed products that can deliver cannabis to patients through gels and creams, transdermal patches, metered dose inhalers and vaporizer pens.
"A lot of our investment went into hiring great people from the pharmaceutical and biotech industries," ," Tipton said, "so we could develop innovative devices for delivering medical cannabis that could more precise doses."
Contact Crystal Owens at firstname.lastname@example.org