Before the sun set over the rows of palms and ferns and hibiscus Thursday, Chuck Buster had heard from a half-dozen friends, all calling to tell him his next venture could be in Florida's medical marijuana business.
For more than three decades, the co-owner of Alpha Foliage has tilled the Homestead earth near the southern tip of Florida, raising tropical foliage season after season. But a rising drumbeat to bring medical marijuana to Florida, plus a Legislature that relented on the last day of the lawmaking session last spring, have combined to create a potential new business boom for nursery owners.
What Buster's nursery qualified as a potential pot-growing location, he found himself poised to use his 300 acres and 30 years of experience in the foliage business to enter the legal pot business.
He's far from alone. Alpha Foliage is one of 50 veteran nurseries in Florida eligible to compete to become one of five regional growers. That has fueled a frenzy of callers -- ganja-preneurs, investors, technology companies -- looking to partner with an eligible nursery in what will become Florida's newest legal crop, a limited, low-THC form of marijuana for medical purposes. It will be used for patients with seizures, se
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vere and persistent muscle spasms and cancer.
"I started getting all these inquiries as to whether I had any interest in partnering in a marijuana growing operation," said Buster, as he surveyed the growing list of agricultural companies from the town of Havana in North Florida to Homestead, that met the criteria of operating for at least 30 years and having an inventory of 400,000 plants. "Everybody is trying to be a part of this."
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized use of some medical marijuana. Florida became part of the group with the passage of the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act this year.
The new law allows five medical marijuana dispensaries to cultivate marijuana low in tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical that provides a euphoric high, but high in cannabidiol, which can calm seizures. The plants will be processed into an oil form and taken orally.
The law and speculation about Amendment 2 -- a proposed constitutional referendum set for a statewide vote in November that would expand the uses of medical marijuana in Florida -- are attracting a slew of companies looking to do business in the state. They come brandishing cash and expertise, the tools they say will guarantee success in the expanding field.
Under the proposed rules drafted by the Florida Department of Health, the state will award regional licenses through a lottery that will include a pool of eligible participants. The second rule-making workshop is scheduled Aug. 1 in Tallahassee, but application forms can't be created until the rules are formalized.
What is clear already: The investment required will be sizable. The license will cost $150,000, along with the growers posting a $5 million performance bond. Nurseries also will be required to have comprehensive technology and security. Growers will have to fingerprint and screen their employees.
How to grow it
Businesses and how-to-grow-medical-pot schools are flocking to Florida to stake out a slice of the new industry, hosting seminars and conferences to train wanna-be "canni-business" owners on how to jump into a complex, highly regulated market. They talk about Florida as a destination for medical marijuana-related opportunities, including growing and dispensing, lab testing and equipment, delivery services, payment processing and insurance, security and real estate services.
Colorado-based MMJ Business Academy held a two-day eventthis weekend at a Doral hotel for $299 offering advice and a "road map" for opening a marijuana business. The Summit and Solutions event also was a platform for entrepreneurs to pitch business ideas to industry professionals.
Similar events already have been held in Hollywood, Miami and West Palm Beach. In North Miami-Dade, a mammoth yellow billboard on the shoulder of Interstate 95 beckons entrepreneurs to a seminar in August at the Signature Grand in Davie.
The Medical Marijuana Business Seminars' one-day event, with a price tag starting at $395, offers a team including doctors, lawyers, dispensary owners, horticulturists and hydroponics experts.
"The time is now to get in on the ground floor of an industry that is going to explode in Florida!" reads an advertisement.
For Buster, the burgeoning industry is attractive if his only investment is the land and license. After his nursery was added to the list of potential license holders, the calls flooded in, nearly two dozen from the United States and abroad. Some strictly wanted to invest. Others want to partner, bringing the technology needed to grow the plants.
"I am 75 years old and reached a point in life where I don't want any more challenges. Growing marijuana is a technical type of growing that takes special equipment and techniques," said Buster, who sells about 2 million fern baskets annually. "So anybody I would partner with, they would provide all the money and expertise and I would provide the license and land."
Patients, not just profit
In the midst of the business boom are the personal stories, the hopes of parents whose children suffer intractable seizures and wait for the medical marijuana they believe can help. For many, it's a last resort.
Seth Hyman, a business consultant and advocate, has made a mission out of trying to help find treatment for his daughter Rebecca, who has a rare genetic disorder. Up to 200 times a day, the 8-year-old suffers seizures, small and large. The seizures started about five years ago, becoming so disabling that she requires constant care. Hyman, who testified before the Florida House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice earlier in January in support of medical marijuana, said he has tried 15 to 20 medications to treat his daughter's seizures, which often include the loss of consciousness and muscle contractions of the type known as grand mal seizures.
None has worked.
"Rebecca is the wonder of our life. She had so much potential before the seizures. She started to show progress. Progress for children who are medically complex can be something as simple as grasping a little toy or rolling or trying to sit up," said Hyman, who lives in Weston with his wife, Danielle, Rebecca and oldest daughter, Melissa, 14. "Unfortunately, when she started having seizures five years ago, she started to regress."
The seizures have left Hyman fearing the worst.
"Sometimes she turns blue and stops breathing. Just today, she had three grand mals. This is a normal, daily routine," he said. "As desperate parents, we are fighting for any kind of possible relief."
Ashley Trop, co-owner of Plants in Design, learned from the media his Redland nursery -- which began simply as staghorn ferns and bromeliads in a backyard about 40 years ago -- was eligible to compete for a license. Since that spring day, the phone has been buzzing.
"A lot of people have come out of the woodwork. There is a huge amount of interest," said Trop, a former Miami Beach firefighter who owns the nursery, specializing in bromeliads, with two partners. "We even had a woman in the U.S. Virgin Islands who called to say her son was a good marijuana grower there and could help us if we needed it. We have also heard from friends in Brazil who want to invest cash in the business."