APOLLO BEACH – Row after orderly row, inside a building more than a city block in size, green cannabis plants reach as high as 10 feet into the air.
Each has a unique identification number and name – Red Headed Stranger, Colorado Chem, 3 Dog Night, to name a few – and they'll follow the plants to their final destination at the AltMed Florida medical marijuana dispensary less than a mile away.
Each week, the 150,000-square foot building once used in tomato packing turns out 500 pounds of cannabis from among the 5,000 plants growing at any time. There are 50 varieties of the plant here, tailored to treat specific medical conditions.
Sarasota-based AltMed will soon have a new place to sell its MÜV brand products with the opening Saturday (Oct. 6) of a dispensary in Tampa off North Dale Mabry Highway.
Like the medical marijuana industry overall, AltMed is headed in one direction – "Bigger and even bigger" – said Todd A. Beckwith, the company's Florida global marketing director. The company aims eventually to open 25 dispensaries across Florida.
AltMed Florida opened its first state-approved dispensary in June in Apollo Beach and its second in Sarasota a few months later.
In partnership with Plants of Ruskin, the company grows its own cannabis while conducting research at the sprawling Apollo Beach cultivation center.
Cannabis plants start out in a nursery room, proceed through layers of growth, then are harvested, dried, tested and refined into oils for use in vaporizers, transdermal patches and lotions.
"We have state-of-the-art systems that monitor nutrients, hydration and feed for the plants specific to each strain," Beckwith said.
Genetic profiling enables growers to create cloned versions for high quality and consistency. AltMed Florida wants to make sure it never runs out of a product a patient may need.
A state registry lists 130,000 patients, 1,506 qualified physicians, 43 approved retail dispensing locations and 13 approved medical marijuana treatment centers, according to the latest numbers from the state Office of Medical Marijuana Use.
Florida adds an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 new patients a week to the registry, Beckwith said.
In 2016, Florida voters approved Amendment 2, allowing doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to patients with debilitating conditions. State lawmakers ruled out smoking marijuana as an option, limiting medical ingestion to oils, sprays, tinctures, vaping and edibles.
Complaints poured into the state, and in June, a Leon County judge ruled to allow it. But an appellate court last month ruled that smokeable marijuana cannot be sold in medical dispensaries.
In response, alternative medicine companies like AltMedare are developing methods that will get marijuana into a patient's blood stream faster than smoking, especially for those needing immediate pain relief.
AltMed Florida scientists, working inside a lab at the Apollo Beach center, are trying to develop a capsule form of medical marijuana.
A capsule holds special appeal "if you have any kind of intestinal disorders or you have cancer or rheumatoid arthritis — anything like that you're going to have to take a really high dose," said Dr. Jackie Salm Fries, AltMed Florida laboratory director.
Scientists in the lab also test the potency of marijuana strains and help identify flavors, smells or molds that may need to be removed.
Currently, AltMed's most popular product is called shatter — a marijuana concentrate , according to Dr. Chris Witowski, AltMed Florida's director of laboratory and processing.
"We have patients that drive from Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Miami," Beckwith said, "just to come to our dispensaries for the quality of the product."
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