Four years ago, Bree Morris faced a choice between pain relief and being close to family.
Permanently disabled from a car crash that injured her back, Morris, 53, moved from Florida to Colorado after voters here rejected a medical marijuana referendum in 2012. She left her children and grandchildren with a hunch that access to medical cannabis in Colorado would work better than the opiates that had turned her into a "zombie."
"From that day on, my quality of life changed," she said. "I started doing walks around the park. I started feeling better about life. I'm able to talk and be alert and do things."
Now Morris is back in Florida, where medical marijuana recently became legal. On Thursday, the Port Richey resident was one of the first patients in Hillsborough County's newest medical marijuana dispensary.
Trulieve, one of seven companies in Florida authorized to grow marijuana and produce and sell cannabis pills and oil, opened in a former fitness gym at 8701 N Dale Mabry Highway. It's Trulieve's third location in Florida — the others are in Clearwater and Tallahassee — and the latest in a plan to expand to all of the state's major markets, said chief executive officer Kim Rivers. A St. Petersburg location is expected to open later this year.
The goal is to improve access for patients, Rivers said. Trulieve, which has a growing and production facility near Tallahassee, already delivers anywhere in the state, but patients can avoid a delivery fee by picking up their medication in person.
"We think it's very, very important for dispensing organizations and dispensaries to be located close to patients so they can develop a relationship with that particular dispensary," she said.
A limited form of medical marijuana has been legal in Florida since 2014. Physicians can prescribe strains of the drug low in THC for some patients, including children with severe epilepsy and cancer. Last year, Gov. Rick Scott signed a law that allows the use of full-strength medical marijuana for patients who are within one year of death.
Then, in November, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that eases access to the drug. The Florida Legislature has just begun the process of developing new regulations.
Meanwhile, Trulieve and others continue to open new dispensaries. Last fall, a company called Surterra opened Hillsborough's first on Fowler Avenue in Tampa. That and Trulieve's dispensary were permitted before the Hillsborough County Commission approved a six-month moratorium on new locations.
On Thursday, patients waited in Trulieve's sky-lit lobby. They came for relief from conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease and fibromyalgia. Their doctors had already prescribed them a form and dosage of medical marijuana and put the information in a registry that the dispensary checks when the patient arrives.
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Trulieve's product line includes capsules, tinctures, liquids that can be swallowed and oils that are heated and inhaled through a vaporizer pen. Some have no THC, the chemical that causes a euphoric high, and others have enough to provide some effects.
Murl Rossell, 49, of Land O'Lakes showed up to Trulieve with fresh bandages on his right arm from one of his thrice-weekly dialysis appointments. He has smoked pot for years to cut down on nausea, improve his appetite and help him sleep, and recently decided to try the medical variety after a suggestion from his doctor. He picked up his first prescription Thursday.
"It helps me to be able to cope with the day," he said. "Now that they have something legal I can do, that's even better."
Contact Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.