LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Just seven years into his retirement in Florida, Michael Smullen is back in business -- the business of medical marijuana.
Floridians have yet to vote on Amendment 2 to the state Constitution, which would legalize medical marijuana and permit doctors to recommend it as a treatment option. But Smullen, a former biotech executive, and two partners have already launched AltMed LLC.
The company, which already has 16 employees, a Lakewood Ranch address and $5 million invested, intends to grow, process and supply Floridians with a form of marijuana called "Charlotte's Web," a non-psychoactive hybrid type of marijuana that does not induce the "high" usually associated with the plant's recreational use.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott gave his blessing to the drug in June, signing legislation making it legal for the treat
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ment of debilitating illnesses and seizures, particularly prevalent among children with severe epilepsy.
Smullen, who profited when the Maryland biotechnology enterprise MedImmune was sold to pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, said he has a new meaning to his life. His 15-year-old daughter, Kayla, suffered from epilepsy when she was a child. Watching the effects of medication used to treat her illness was something that left an indelible mark on her father. When Smullen watched a CNN TV documentary about Charlotte's Web, he says, he knew he'd found his calling.
The strain was named for 5-year-old Charlotte Figi, who suffered a rare disorder called Dravet's syndrome, which caused her to have as many as 300 grand mal seizures a week.
"It was hard watching this little girl named Charlotte suffering from severe seizures that no drugs could control and not deviating back to when times were difficult with Kayla," Smullen said in an interview in his Lakewood Ranch office.
"What they were showing is exactly what I was asking my neurologist years ago: 'What can we do to control her seizures and not have her walking in a daze with drugs?'"
Joining him were his wife, Traci, the company's philanthropic director and a former pharmaceutical sales representative, and David Wright, his former MedImmune partner who is now AltMed's president and CEO.
Wright said the process to produce Charlotte's Web is time-consuming and expensive, but the benefits will be worth the effort.
"We will bring the same rigor to the production of cannabis that has been done with pharmaceuticals, because we want to do it right," Wright said. "Drugs are treatments, not cures. This is another treatment that provides relief that patients don't get with pharmaceutical drugs."
Smullen, Wright and a third partner, Bill Petron, a Lakewood Ranch resident who runs a successful farm equipment shipping business, have targeted two areas in rural Sarasota County for the growing, processing and dispensing of Charlotte's Web near state-licensed nurseries, which is a state requirement. The team has a super-charged, five-year business plan that could amount to a $10 million investment when all aspects of the operation are completed.
They have been working with Sarasota County officials on zoning and permitting issues for a 25,000-square-foot indoor growing area and 7,500-square-foot outdoor growing area, along with a processing and dispensary operation that will be the basis of the business.
Jeff Maulsby, director of business and economic development for Sarasota County, said the AltMed venture is something of a risk since the company doesn't know if it will be selected in the state lottery that will grant authority to just one company to produce Charlotte's Web in one of five established regions.
"This is the first for everybody since it's brand new for our state. This will further diversify the agribusiness in Sarasota County, which is very good," Maulsby said. "My role will simply be to help shepherd the company through regulatory processes in the county."
If Florida voters pass the amendment and AltMed wins the lottery, the company said it can produce the first batch of marijuana possibly as early as November or in late January 2015 after it receives authorization to grow. Children who receive Charlotte's Web must be given the drug in the form of an oil or a paste so it can be swallowed and not smoked. It might also be dispensed as a spray, gum or a patch.
While most insurance companies don't currently cover the cost of the treatment, the price can range from $300 to $1,000, according to company officials. AltMed said it has developed a program that will help those who can't afford it.
"Everyone will be treated the same way," Wright said.
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.