LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Because of a series of lawsuits filed recently against the Florida Department of Health, AltMed, a Lakewood Ranch medical marijuana company, has slowed its plans to build a large facility in rural eastern Sarasota County.
The company, among many in the state seeking one of only five statewide licenses to dispense a variety of low-THC cannabis known as "Charlotte's Web," was betting on being chosen by a lottery system adopted by the Department of Health after Gov. Rick Scott signed the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014 into law this year.
But several lawsuits filed by various farming operations around the state, including one in nearby Ruskin in Hillsborough County, claim the lottery system is not part of the original law and is not the most suitable method for selecting the most eligible applicants.
Altmed Co-Executive Chairman Michael Smullen told the Bradenton Herald that at this point it makes more sense to slow construction. The company plans to build a 35,000-square-foot grow room with a testing laboratory and oil-processing plant, along with a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse on what is a rural Sarasota nursery 10 miles east of Interstate 75 on Fruitville Road.
"I wish there wasn't a lottery
and I wish we didn't have a dispensary near the grow (area), which is part of the law. We never entertained the thought of slowing down the process and I don't see any good coming out of these lawsuits. It's all very disappointing to us," he said.
Still, Smullen said he is confident AltMed will continue making preparations for the facility while awaiting the outcome of the general election Nov. 4 and the vote on Amendment 2. If approved, the measure would widen the scope of medical cannabis and the types of medical marijuana that can be grown and sold to Florida residents.
"We're probably going to know more about the amendment before we know whether we have a license for Senate Bill 1030," Smullen acknowledged. "If the amendment doesn't pass, and we don't get a license, I will find it difficult to say, 'Let's keep moving forward.'"
For now, however, AltMed is continuing to enhance its business plan. Founded by a group of pharmaceutical executives that includes Smullen, AltMed announced it has joined forces with Canadian medical marijuana company Vida Cannabis to build expertise andto collaborate on clinical research, quality assurance and the cultivation of pharmaceutical-grade cannabis.
Both companies have signed a strategic-alliance agreement that includes an alignment of business-development know-how to capitalize on their complementary strengths and best practices.
"They have a need to help educate some of their physicians, which we can provide, as well as helping them put together a sales force, which I have a lot of experience in," Smullen said. He noted Vida Cannabis is interested in AltMed's philanthropic endeavors and becoming good community partners in Canada.
Vida Cannabis, a Toronto-based medical marijuana company, is awaiting its license from the Canadian government, which has approved and regulates the growing and dispensing of medical cannabis for its citizens. With plans to reconstruct and open an indoor 315,000-square-foot production facility in Nova Scotia, Vida Cannabis said its alliance with AltMed is strong.
"We share the same the philosophy about how to build this business through strong research and a pharmaceutical approach. AltMed shares both our scientific DNA and our commitment to patients," said Greg Wilson, CEO of Vida Cannabis. "I think when both companies do, ultimately, get a license, we'll be strong collaborators and we'll be ahead of the curve in research and clinical studies."
Vida Cannabis's chief researcher, Dr. Pritesh Kumar, who holds a doctoral degree from the University of Kentucky, will manage the company's on-site laboratory as the chief of cannabinoid research science and quality assurance.
AltMed has appointed two physicians to lead its science and quality controls. Dr. Valerie Riddle, who received her medical degree from the University of South Florida in internal medicine and infectious diseases, will lead the medical research and science-related aspects of the company. Dr. Matthew Nessetti, medical director at All Care Medical Center in Lakewood Ranch, Venice, Sarasota and Bradenton, will be responsible for ensuring quality control for AltMed's operations, a requirement of the Compassionate Care law.
"We're taking a big calculated risk with all the things we're doing. At the end of the day, looking ahead, we're focusing on our business, focusing on the things we can control, and we can only do so much," Smullen said.
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.