TALLAHASSEE — Five Florida nurseries were selected Monday to cultivate and distribute the first legal marijuana in the state, opening the door to the sale of the noneuphoric strains to treat patients with seizure disorders and cancer by June.
Knox Nursery of Winter Garden will grow it for the Central Region, which includes most of Tampa Bay. Alpha Foliage of Homestead will grow it for the Southwest Region, which includes Hillsborough County. Costa Nursery Farms of Miami won the bid for the Southeast Region. Hackney Nursery Co. of Tallahassee will grow it for the Northwest Region. Chestnut Hill Tree Farm of Alachua will be the grower for the Northeast Region.
The decision moves the state closer to implementing the 2014 law that allows for marijuana extracts that are low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabidiol, or CBD. The law was intended to treat patients with intractable epilepsy and people with advanced cancer. To qualify for the low-THC-based cannabis treatment, patients must obtain permission from a qualified doctor and be added to the Compassionate Use Registry.
Under the law, applicants had to have been in business in Florida for at least 30 years and grow a minimum of 400,000 plants at the time they applied.
Many of the five nurseries teamed with consultants, investors, security firms, technology companies and out-of-state pot growers to develop their application. Each was chosen from a pool of 28 applicants from around the state by a panel of three state reviewers, based on rules set by a panel that included five growers.
Four of the nurseries represented on the selection committee — Costa Farms, Hackney Nursery, Chestnut Hill Farms and Knox Nursery — also were winners in the application process, immediately drawing fire from other applicants.
"Today's award of licenses will raise serious questions about improper influence and self-dealing," said Taylor Patrick Biehl, a lobbyist for the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida whose consulting firm represented three of the applicants.
"Maybe they learned something the rest of us didn't in terms of putting the applications together," said Jeff Sharkey, who heads the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida. "Every applicant will be reviewing the scoring and making some decisions in terms of how to proceed."
Each of the growers now will have 10 business days to post a $5 million performance bond to show it is serious about obtaining the license. If any of the applicants misses that deadline, the applicant with the next highest score in that region will be selected, the Department of Health said in a press release.
The clock also starts Monday for growers. The nurseries have 75 days to request cultivation authority and they must begin cultivating the low-THC cannabis within 210 days — or by June of next year.
While Costa Farms will serve the Southeast Region of the state, Alpha Foliage Inc. of Homestead was awarded a license to serve Southwest Florida. That region includes Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hendry, Highlands, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Okeechobee and Sarasota counties.
The Alpha Foliage's marijuana subsidiary will do business as Surterra Therapeutics 1 but, because the Department of Health allowed applicants to determine what portions of their application should be redacted and inaccessible to the public, most of the company's 1,100-page application has been redacted. It is unknown where the company's facility will be located and where patients can purchase the low-THC product.
The growers are also banking on the Legislature to expand the number of medical conditions covered by the law or passage of the more wide-ranging medical marijuana initiative that could be on the November 2016 ballot.
United for Care, a group led by prominent Orlando attorney John Morgan, is collecting signatures for the measure that would establish a constitutional right to medical marijuana for a broad range of conditions. A similar amendment in 2014 got 58 percent of the vote, just short of the 60 percent needed to become law in Florida.
Patients were supposed to have access to the low-THC products on Jan. 1, when doctors who had undergone special training were supposed to begin ordering the medication, but the process has been delayed because of lawsuits and a judge's decision last year that rejected health officials' first attempt at implementing the law.
Sharkey said there are about 20,000 potential patients in Florida that could benefit from the low-THC cannabis, also known as "Charlotte's Web." But that is a small patient base for an expensive investment, he said.
Legislation is moving through the House and Senate that would expand the patient base by allowing for more medical conditions to be covered under the "right to try" state law. The measure would also allow growers to cultivate strains with higher THC levels that cancer patients say is necessary.
"There has to be a market that is sustainable," Sharkey said. "More medical conditions and modifying the THC could expand the accessibility and the affordability."
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at email@example.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.