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Retirees on St. Pete Beach have big plans for the medical marijuana industry

Here are some of the members of Gulf Coast Canna Meds. (From left to right) back row, Michael Welch, Thomas J. Murphy, Lonnie Orns, Oscar Mouton and front row Andrew Hano, MD, Linda Colindres, RN; and David Kitenplon pose for a portrait at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg.
[EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Published May 12, 2017

While Florida politicians have butted heads over how to regulate the growing medical marijuana industry this year, Tom Murphy and Michael Welch have been busy working behind the scenes to try to ensure their company gets a piece of it.

Murphy, 71, and Welch, 79, are two of the founders of Gulf Coast Canna Meds, a burgeoning medical marijuana company in St. Petersburg that wants to distribute cannabis products to patients in Florida. They're just one of many groups in Florida eager to be part of this growing new medical industry. But that's easier said than done.

While Florida voters have overwhelmingly voted to make medical marijuana legal, it's been up to the Legislature to translate how it will work. To many, it may seem like a basic humanitarian issue for patients who want simple and affordable access to medical marijuana — but it's not. There's a lot at stake.

"We're the guys on the outside looking in," said Murphy, a former beer distributor who retired to St. Pete Beach. "We learned that the small business man didn't stand much of a chance in Tallahassee with the bills that were being discussed. We're small business people. We're not these deep-pocketed cartels. We're the free enterprise people. The mom and pops."

Medical marijuana is projected to become a $1 billion industry in Florida within the next three years. But only seven companies have been licensed by the state to produce, cultivate and sell it. They are responsible for providing patients who suffer from debilitating conditions with a medicinal alternative to prescription drugs. Often described as the "cartels," Florida's seven licensed cannabis companies have millions in investment behind them. They donated more than a half-million dollars in campaign contributions and employ well-known lobbyists in Tallahassee. Some have started to open dispensaries.

Previous Coverage: Meet Florida's legal drug cartels

The bills that materialized in the House and Senate toward the end of the legislative session this year did not bode well for folks like Murphy and Welch, or advocates like attorney John Morgan, who all support an open and free market for medical marijuana. Either bill, if passed into law, would have continued to limit the number of companies licensed to cultivate and sell cannabis products.

"Honestly both bills are extraordinarily problematic for establishing a free market," said Ben Pollara, executive director of Florida For Care, an organization founded in 2014 to advocate for the legalization of medical marijuana under Amendment 2. Gulf Coast Canna Meds is an active member of Florida For Care.

Pollara and other advocates are pushing legislators to hold a special session in Tallahassee to iron out the issues for medical marijuana laws. "The big question for people like Tom and Michael is when will the market open up? It will eventually, but when it does, will there be an opportunity for more players or will the cartels have had such a head start that there's no room?"

If a potential special session doesn't bare results, it will be up to the Florida Department of Health to outline regulations for the industry this summer. Pollara said that is problematic, too.

"Unless the Department of Heath officials become thought leaders over night, I think having flawed bills is better than inaction," he said.

But Murphy and Welch aren't giving up. They hope to raise $2 million this year to help fund lobbyist efforts and capital investment for their company. They've met with business groups in St. Petersburg and have started speaking at community events around Tampa Bay to raise awareness of Gulf Coast Canna Meds and education around marijuana as a medicinal tool.

"It's been hard in Florida to have this conversation which amazes me because we're not the first to push through these kind of laws," said Chris Steinocher, CEO of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce. Steinocher's met with the Canna Meds team and others in the medical marijuana industry that want to build their business in St. Petersburg. "At the chamber, we've been identifying industries that really fit in St. Pete, and life sciences are a major player here. We're young in talking about this industry, but it's definitely a life science initiative. I was impressed by the Gulf Coast Canna Meds group and the work they want to do here in our community."

Gulf Coast Canna Meds has a small office on Central Avenue and they have plans for a warehouse space in the arts and industrial district nearby.

The company was started after Murphy lost both his mother and wife to cancer. He's recruited a team he calls "ordinary people" who believe in the medicinal use of marijuana to treat debilitating diseases. It's a diverse group. The other members of the team are former business executives, real estate brokers, veterans, health care professionals, pharmacists, doctors, nurses and marketers. Last year, the group raised a half million dollars in just 60 days, which helped fund the lobbyists they hired during session this year.

Previous Coverage: It may be legal now, but opening a medical marijuana store in Florida is harder than you think

"We're still moving forward as much as we can," Murphy said, meaning the company is still raising funds and meeting with others in the industry from other states. Unlike Pollara, they're willing to take their chances with the Department of Health. "A bad bill is worse than no bill at all."

Welch says that Department of Health would be an "easier adversary" than the legislature. They haven't ruled out litigation as a option to get their voice heard.

"The patient is the most important person in this whole chain of events," but is often the one forgotten about in legislation, said Welch, a former advertising and marketing executive who also lives on St. Pete Beach. "That's the whole reason why we're here."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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