By Keith Morelli Tampa Tribune, Fla.
If Florida voters approve a referendum to legalize medical marijuana in the November, legal weed might be available for prescription-toting Floridians as early as late next year.
Tampa entrepreneur Jeremy Bufford isn't waiting.
Bufford, 33, has launched Medical Marijuana Tampa, including a "cannabis college" where students already are learning how to grow pot.
Still, success is "far more difficult than putting a seed in the ground," Bufford said.
Students learn other practical lessons -- the vagaries of the weed market, how to make money and deliver a dependable product -- as well as historical, legal, botanical and pharmacological perspectives.
Bufford opened an intensive four-week "education in cultivation" course this week in conference rooms at downtown hotels.
The first class was Tuesday.
For $499, the students are learning from "master botanists" advanced hydroponic and aeroponic techniques for producing medical-grade marijuana, according to the Medical Marijuana Tampa website.
The instructor is Carlos Hermidas, an alumnus of Oaksterdam University, a cannabis college in California that was at the forefront of medical marijuana training before it was raided by federal agents in April 2012.
It's still operating, but on a much smaller scale.
From all appearances, one class at the Residence Inn downtown could just as well have been studying accounting: a teacher stands before 20 young and middle-aged men and women who are at desks or tables with laptops open.
They take notes and ask questions, except the topics included grow space, lighting techniques and air handling.
Georgette Heard, 57, has a license to grow marijuana in California, she said, having moved here six weeks ago to help her mother recuperate from a stroke. She's been growing for about 10 years, selling seeds and edible forms of the drug to sick people as alternative sources of relief.
"I'm interested (in) what's happening here in Florida," Heard said. "I'm the only child. If something happens to my mom, I have to be here.
"I feel that we need to be able to have safe access for everybody in this whole United States. And why are we not having safe access for people when it is so easy to do that instead of people being put in jail and making them go out in the streets and buy stuff they don't even know what it is?"
Some take the course because they see a business opportunity. Some see it as a chance to do good. Some see both.
"I definitely see the potential for financial gain in the future," said Eli Baker, 23 of Pinellas Park, "but what initially brought me into it was helping people."
He's optimistic the amendment will pass.
"It will be a dream of mine," he said, "to actually be established in the business."
Petitioners gathered enough signatures last year to put the medical marijuana issue to a popular vote and the wording of the referendum was approved by the Florida Supreme Court recently, over the objection of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
If it passes, the state must establish a regulatory system before legal commerce can begin.
But backers of the measure say beware of the temptation to invest now.
Creating growing and distribution businesses and offering cannabis cultivation classes may be jumping the gun, said Ben Pollara, director of United for Care, People United for Medical Marijuana, which helped spearhead the petition drive.
Pollara has heard of the cannabis college in Tampa and he's getting many calls from in the state and outside voicing interest in opening similar businesses.
"What I'm telling them is to read the amendment," he said. "So far, that's the entirety of the law and anybody who knows how this will be implemented or knows what it will look like is selling you a bill of goods."
Still, he said, "This is America and this is Florida. We're a free market place."
Medicinal marijuana is prescribed in many states for treatment of side effects from cancer and multiple sclerosis drugs and to ease the pain caused by other life-threatening diseases.
Seventeen states now allow use of some form of marijuana as a prescription medicine.
Colorado and Washington state have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
Bufford formed Medical Marijuana Tampa in May. As far as he knows, Medical Marijuana Tampa is the first such business in the state, at least to the scale of his operation.
"The goal is to be the trusted place for all of the patients in Tampa Bay to buy their medicine," he said. "We want to operate 15 treatment centers from Bradenton to New Port Richey to Lakeland and all points in between. We're also going to operate a laboratory testing facility."
He said he hopes to expand the cannabis college to five classrooms around the region. His first lease, for space inside a former cigar factory in West Tampa, fell through because the owners were uncomfortable with the business.
Bufford said his inspiration came from his father, who underwent a series of botched surgeries.
"I've seen the power of medical marijuana actually affect people's lives, improve their quality of life, increase appetite, relieve pain," he said. "I know that it works ... when you actually see it change somebody's life, you become a believer."
He said he does not smoke pot.
"I've never been a part of that culture," he said. "But I saw the efficacy of the drug. Then I started getting interested. I traveled around California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C. I spoke with CPAs and attorneys and growers both in legitimate operations and black market."
Over the past three years, he learned everything he could about the business, he said. "I wanted to take all those best practices back to Florida and become the first mover and the leader in that field."
He thought he had a few more years to plan, but the petition gained momentum last year and that resulted in him expediting the timetable.
"We saw the writing on the wall," he said, "and we all believe that it's going to pass in November."