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In Debate Over Medical Marijuana, Some See Dollars

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Medical marijuana supporters have had a singular focus in making their case to voters across Florida: sick and suffering patients.

Many backers also see the money at stake in the debate over Amendment 2.

Thousands have attended workshops about how to start marijuana businesses. Farmland filled with tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers awaits the possibility of being replanted with a new leafy green. And entrepreneurs ready to offer everything from legal services to cannabis-infused chocolate-covered pretzels stand by for a chance to expand into the fourth-largest state.

“Millionaires are going to be made,” said Steven Siegel, CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based BioTrackTHC, which offers an inventory-control system and other services to marijuana businesses.

Siegel has been seeing month-over-month growth of about 30 percent and expects $8 million in revenue by year’s end in states where some form of marijuana legalization has already taken place. Though he hears from many aspiring entrepreneurs who want to open dispensaries, Siegel says there is money to be made in countless ancillary services, from lab testing to fertilizer to delivery services.

“My company does not touch marijuana at all,” he said.

Like all statewide ballot measures, Amendment 2 will require 60 percent support in the Nov. 4 election to pass. To obtain marijuana, a patient would have to get a doctor’s certification of their condition, which in turn would qualify them for a patient ID card they can use at licensed dispensaries.

Ata Gonzalez, a Florida native who is now CEO of California-based GFarmaLabs, believes passage would further open his company’s potential to become a national brand for its various marijuana products, including dozens of different chocolate bars, truffles and other candies.

Because of federal drug laws, companies such as Gonzalez’s aren’t able to centralize production and ship marijuana-infused products from state to state. Gonzalez envisions entering partnerships in which his company teaches other business how to create GFarmaLabs’ products, providing everything but the marijuana.

“Florida has needed something for many years now to bring them back into the economy,” he said.

The enthusiasm has fueled attendance at marijuana business seminars. Roadside billboards promise “a new industry is coming to Florida.” Any industry will depend in large part on the Department of Health. If Amendment 2 passes, the agency’s regulations would determine the ease of opening a dispensary, and as a result, could dictate the ultimate size of the economic impact.

The health agency’s analysis of Amendment 2 gives a glimpse at what could happen with passage: an estimated 1,789 treatment centers serving 417,252 patients; sales totaling anywhere from $331 million to $5.6 billion; and sales tax revenues of about $19.9 million up to $338 million. Additional tax revenues could be generated from property taxes on dispensaries and other businesses.

Not all business leaders are enthusiastic. David Hart, an executive vice president at the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said it’s “absolutely not the kind of business expansion that we would hope to see.” He said it would jeopardize the state’s image and threaten existing businesses.

“The proponents of this will tell you that this is just about medical marijuana, just about people that are extremely ill,” he said. “For those that are out there saying that there could be an economic boom tells me that both of those groups can’t be right.”

Those entrenched in the industry caution it is still in its infancy and operating in a complicated legal framework with potentially high start-up costs.

“There’s nothing easy about getting rich in this business,” said Derek Peterson, who runs a marijuana dispensary in Northern California that sees about 900 patients a day. “This is a long game, this isn’t a short game.”

Peterson has smoked marijuana since he was a teen, and tapped into its medicinal value after breaking his neck while surfing about 10 years ago. He also saw the potential for a big paycheck. He was earning up to $400,000 on Wall Street five years ago when he learned a friend’s dispensary was making about $18 million a year.

Terra Tech, the company Peterson leads which runs hydroponic farming operations around the U.S., is poised to capitalize on an expansion of marijuana into Florida and other states. The company grows vegetables sold under the Edible Garden brand, but his cooperative contracts with farmers include agreements that would shift to medical marijuana should it be legalized.

Though debates on Amendment 2 have drawn many supporters, leaders of the opposition have tried to tamper enthusiasm, largely through television ads that portray the measure as full of holes. Jessica Spencer, who is leading the Vote No on 2 group, said voters shouldn’t be confused by who will benefit from a possible economic boom brought by the amendment.

“This is big industry,” she said. “If people think this is about the little guy and this is about small business, it’s not.”