TALLAHASSEE — Two years after state lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott approved it, Florida's first medical cannabis dispensary is scheduled to open next week.
The Florida Department of Health on Wednesday gave Trulieve, a North Florida grower and dispensary, permission to open in Tallahassee and start delivering cannabis statewide.
When Trulieve opens Tuesday, it will be the first time strains of the drug will be available under a 2014 law meant to give patients with cancer and seizures access to a strain of medical marijuana low in THC, the chemical that causes a euphoric high.
Five additional nurseries are growing and extracting oil from cannabis, according to the DOH, and could soon join Trulieve in legally selling medical marijuana.
For parents like Donna Perez of Sebring, the news comes as a relief.
Perez's 3-year-old son, Noah, suffers from intractable epilepsy and severe seizures. She spends all day by Noah's side taking care of him, making sure he takes six medications every day.
Noah still suffers from seizures, Perez said. He can hardly smile anymore.
"Maybe he can function for a day or not have seizures for a day or not choke," she said. "Even if it doesn't work it would be worth a try."
Patients, many of whom are children, have been waiting as legal challenges and the drafting of state regulations delayed the drug's release.
It has prompted many to find other, often illegal, sources for the drug, said Moriah Barnhart of Tampa, who founded the organization CannaMoms two years ago.
"We're spending all night watching our children to make sure they're still alive and at the same time watching out the window to make sure we're not being raided" by police, she said.
Barnhart's 5-year-old daughter, Dahlia, was diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer three years ago. She has been using cannabis oil since 2013, and Barnhart says it has had a dramatic effect, reducing Dahlia's pain and increasing her appetite.
The opening of the state's first dispensary is a huge symbolic victory, Barnhart said. She's currently in Tennessee, where Dahlia is being treated.
"Going home from this one short trip to the hospital and returning to a state that's legal and has cannabis in the ground and on shelves is pretty immense," she said.
To access the drug legally under the new program, patients must be approved by a doctor who has passed a medical cannabis course. Then, they can place an order with any of the licensed dispensaries in the state.
Trulieve plans to open additional dispensaries outside Tallahassee, CEO Kim Rivers said, In the meantime, patients can order the drug from anywhere in the state. It takes less than a week to be delivered, she said.
"We know that patients have been waiting for a long time," Rivers said. "We thought that it was critical to open as soon as possible to get patients the medications they have been waiting for."
Other licensed growers are close to releasing their first products, as well. Alpha/Surterra, based in Tampa and Tallahassee, had its first harvest last week and plans to start selling later this summer.
State law allows dispensaries to sell cannabis oil to be injected, taken as a pill or consumed by methods other than smoking.
Full-strength medical marijuana will be available for terminally ill patients in early August. The Florida Legislature this spring passed a law allowing patients within a year of death to try the drug if two doctors think it will help them.
Patients with a wider range of conditions could have access to full-strength marijuana if a constitutional amendment legalizing the drug for medical purposes passes in this November's election.
Contact Michael Auslen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MichaelAuslen.