Curaleaf plans to open Polk County’s first medical marijuana dispensary this summer at a shopping center in Lakeland.
LAKELAND — When Lindsay Jones was a boy living in Lakeland, it would have seemed unthinkable that someday Floridians would be allowed to obtain marijuana-based products for use as medicine. Now that he is CEO of one of the companies authorized to make medical marijuana in Florida, Jones is eager to give ailing residents of his hometown easier access to products he says can treat a range of maladies.
Jones’ company, Curaleaf, plans to open Polk County’s first medical marijuana dispensary this summer at a shopping center in Lakeland. Curaleaf, part of a company that operates in 11 states, is aiming for a mid-July opening in the Market Square strip mall at 3179 U.S. 98 N.
The shopping center includes a Guitar Center, a Bealls Outlet and a Just Move Athletic Club.
“When you understand our mission and our perspective to provide medical, cannabis-based products to as many registered and approved patients as we possibly can across the state of Florida, you can’t overlook the fact that Lakeland sits right in the middle of an area that has the second-largest population center in our state,” Jones said Friday. “So in order to expand our patient base, there is absolutely no way we can do that and not go through Lakeland as we move along.”
Jones said his personal connections to Lakeland provided further incentive to place a dispensary in the city. Jones graduated in 1968 from Rochelle High School, an all-black school that soon closed when local schools were racially integrated. (It is now Rochelle School of the Arts.)
With the opening of the Curaleaf dispensary, Polk County will have all three main elements of the medical marijuana industry. A production facility, operated under the name GrowHealthy, already exists in Lake Wales, and Medical Marijuana Treatment Clinics of Florida opened an office last year in Lakeland with doctors who specialize in treatment with cannabis-derived medications.
The Florida Legislature passed a law in 2014 allowing the use of cannabis oil for patients with severe epilepsy, ALS and cancer. The law required the oil to be made from marijuana plants bred to be low in THC, the compound that produces a “high.”
In 2016, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 2, a constitutional revision to broaden the scope of the state program. The measure allowed use of products with higher levels of THC to treat a wider range of conditions.
Florida has awarded licenses to 13 companies to manufacture cannabis-based palliatives. The first dispensaries opened under the new law last year, and there are now more than two dozen.
Rapid expansion Curaleaf is affiliated with one of the five initial companies to receive state licenses, Costa Farms of Miami. The Florida branch, based in Miami, is owned by the Massachusetts-based company PalliaTech. Curaleaf opened its first dispensary last year in Miami and has since expanded to Lake Worth, Fort Myers and St. Petersburg. Jones said he expects the company to have 22 outlets open by the end of the year, ranging all the way to the Panhandle.
The company also offers deliveries to patients in more than 30 counties, including Polk. Curaleaf already has “Coming Soon” signs in the window of the 3,043-square-foot space it will soon occupy in Lakeland’s Market Square. Jones said he expects about 16 employees at the outlet, including delivery drivers.
The company hires dispensary managers three months in advance and assistant managers two months ahead of opening, Jones said. He said all employees receive extensive training.
“I personally interview all of my dispensary managers,” he said. “I have a one-on-one dialog with them, and when I send them out to lead a dispensary team I arm them with our primary mission, which is to make sure that the community and the patients use our dispensary as a place they can come to get information and be educated on the benefits of medical cannabis-based products. They are expected to create an environment of care, compassion and empathy.”
The dispensary will have 24-hour security, Jones said. Jones said Curaleaf’s dispensaries include meeting spaces. He said the company holds monthly classes to teach local residents about marijuana treatments and also brings in a doctor for a monthly talk. Curaleaf also sends representatives to senior centers and health conferences.
Current Florida law doesn’t allow production of marijuana products that can be smoked or eaten, although that could change following a judge’s ruling Friday. Circuit Judge Karen Gievers ruled that a provision in the state law barring patients from smoking marijuana is unconstitutional. Florida’s Department of Health is expected to appeal that ruling.
At present, Curaleaf makes productions that can be vaporized and inhaled, along with oils, gels and ointments.
In order to legally obtain marijuana products, a patient must obtain a recommendation from a doctor who has completed a training program overseen by the Florida Department of Health. The state’s patient registry now contains about 112,000 names, and roughly 86,000 Floridians have obtained the state-issued identification cards that allow them to make purchases at dispensaries.
Not for ‘stoners’ Proponents say cannabis-based medications can be more effective than synthetic opioids and are much safer.
“There is nothing in our dispensary that would fall under the heading of something desirable to stoners,” Jones said. “To the contrary, we are engaging with people who are sick, who have been dealing with very significant conditions.”
Lakeland Planning Manager Teresa Maio said Curaleaf representatives contacted the city while scouting for a potential dispensary location. She said she has also heard from another medical marijuana company, though it’s not clear whether that company intends to open its own outlet.
Under rules the Florida Legislature adopted following the passage of Amendment 2, cities and counties may not restrict medical marijuana dispensaries any more than they do pharmacies. In Lakeland, that means a dispensary can open in any area zoned as commercial or light industrial, Maio said. Market Square has commercial zoning status.
Curaleaf needs no special permission from the city to open its dispensary, Maio said.
Jones, who holds a master’s degree in industrial management, said his first job was at a food-processing plant in Lakeland that no longer exists. He has previously held positions ranging from front-line supervisor to vice president at such companies as Kraft Foods, Starbucks Coffee and Campbell Soup Company, according to his company biography.
Jones isn’t the only Curaleaf official with ties to Lakeland. The company’s medical director, Dr. Annie Casta, is a graduate of Lake Gibson High School.
The expansion of medical cannabis outlets into less populated cities is a welcome trend, said Jodi James, executive director of the Florida Cannabis Action Network.
“Every community has patients suffering; some of those patients will find relief with cannabis therapies,” James said by email. “Our members would like more companies licensed to produce cannabis products.”
James criticized the state for creating a “vertical licenses scheme” that limits the production of medication. “The faster we can roll out a competitive cannabis market, the better off patients will be,” she said.
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