Florida patients hard-pressed to find smokable medical pot as demand increases

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When Robin Boggs walks into her local medical marijuana dispensary, she knows she’s better off than she was a few years ago.

After four failed neck surgeries and a recommendation for a morphine pump, the 63-year-old retired police officer has found that smoking medical marijuana works to help manage her chronic pain in a way that doesn’t leave her “zombified.”

But lately, she’s been leaving disappointed.

“They are having a hard time keeping flower in stock,” said Boggs, of Volusia County. “Many times when I visit a dispensary, I leave heartbroken.”

Boggs is not alone.

Smokable medical marijuana became legal in March after Gov. Ron DeSantis tasked the Legislature with amending Florida law to allow it. While the 2017 bill signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott legalized access to the drug in pill, oil, edible and vape form, it made smoking the medicine illegal.

The new law allows patients to purchase up to 2.5 ounces of whole flower cannabis every 35 days as recommended by their qualified doctor.

Since the law went into effect, medical marijuana treatment centers have dispensed more than 15,000 ounces of the whole flower drug, and the companies are feeling the demand.

There are more than 280,000 qualified patients in Florida, many of whom jumped on the opportunity to take advantage of what cannabis experts call the “entourage effect,” or the effect of smoking mostly unprocessed marijuana bud with all its natural compounds intact, including psychoactive component THC.

A typical growing facility for medical marijuana can take up to six months to build. The actual growing of the plants takes another four or five months, depending on the condition. It can be around 10 months from the time a company wants to expand its growing operation to the time products can hit the shelves, making it tricky to keep up with the demand.

“This is not something you can snap your fingers and make happen,” said Fluent Cannabis CEO Jose Hidalgo. “It’s hard to keep up with a demand that is unknown.”

At Liberty Health Sciences dispensaries, for example, about 60% of patients opt for the smokable flower, according to CEO Victor Mancebo. Curaleaf, the third-largest dispensary chain in the state, says whole flower is one of the company’s best-selling products.

The company has seen such a demand for the medicine that it is expanding its cultivation capacity to keep up with demand.

At Trulieve, the largest licensed cannabis company in the state, whole flower makes up 50% of sales some weeks. Trulieve was the first dispensary in the state to sell cannabis flower after the law allowing it was passed.

Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers acknowledged the shortages at its dispensaries and said the company has increased production to match the demand. Last quarter, the company secured an additional 72,000-square-foot indoor growing facility to produce more smokable products. She says the company will continue to build facilities as it increases its supply.

“We’ll continue to step up to meet our patient demand,” she told the Miami Herald. “It’s certainly grown in popularity.”

But the shortage might not all be from an influx of new patients.

Some patients said they’ve pivoted from vaping to smoking medical marijuana, because of bad experiences with vaporizers or out of an abundance of caution.

This summer’s scare over vaping-related lung disease has extended into the fall, as the Centers for Disease Control grapples with figuring out what products are causing the disease. Florida had reported 78 cases of vaping-related illness as of Oct. 26, and Florida Department of Health Secretary Scott Rivkees is advising patients who vape medical marijuana to talk about their use with their physician.

Nationwide, there have been 1,888 cases of vaping-related lung issues in 49 states (all except Alaska). There have been 37 deaths across 24 states.

Attorney General Ashley Moody also announced that she is investigating nearly two dozen vaping companies that do business in the state.

“It’s a conversation that comes up with literally every single patient that comes into the clinic,” said Barry Gordon, a Venice-based medical marijuana doctor who operates the largest cannabis clinic in the state. “They all want the answers, they know what’s in the press.”

Gordon said his patients are scared of permanent lung damage, and that he advises all of his patients to use all products in moderation. Flower is always going to be the preferred route for some patients, he noted.

“It’s what people are comfortable with, it’s what they grew up with,” he said.

Boggs says she prefers the whole flower because the vaporizers she tried caused her ”burning pain and excessive coughing.” All the coughing made her nauseous, she said.

Brandon Keating, a 34-year-old computer specialist, said vaping made his throat hurt and gave him headaches.

He likes using whole flower from dispensaries like Trulieve to help ease pain from neck injuries, but the stores are often out of the Super Silver Haze, a strain he relies on.

“Ninety-five percent of the time when you go, they’re not going to have something that you want,” said Keating, who has made trips to Tampa from his home in Jacksonville in search of the already expensive medicine. “They just don’t have enough product.”

He admits that black market vape carts “are really cheap,” but that customers don’t always know what they’re getting.

Shawn Williams, a 45-year-old machinist from Pasco County, says vaping makes his chest feel tight. Williams was one of the first patients in Florida and switched from vaping and taking marijuana-infused capsules to using whole flower when it became legal in March.

Williams has multiple sclerosis and has gone without a relapse since he started smoking. He usually shows up to his local Trulieve dispensary right when it opens to ensure he gets the whole flower product, but his plans aren’t totally foolproof.

“We are stuck waiting and wasting trips to Trulieve and other places,” he said. “The system is overburdened and the patients are getting shafted.”

 

Fluent Cannabis founder and CEO Jose Hidalgo shows a container with flowers of their own strain called Lyra. Available at the Fluent Cannabis Dispensary at 175 NW 167th St., North Miami Beach, FL. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

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