Cannabis Quest

Florida's Attitude Toward Pot is Warming. But What Does it Take to Get a Medical Marijuana Card in Sarasota?

With his wife in pain, Tony D’Souza goes on the hunt.

By Tony D’Souza April 2, 2019 Published in the April 2019 issue of Sarasota Magazine

On an overcast day in January 2001, 22-year-old competitive snowboarder Emily Cartwright barreled down the main run at Northern California’s Mount Shasta Ski Park. She was going too fast and knew it. At the bottom, she hit the big air jump carrying more speed than she’d taken into an icy jump in her life. She flew high above the ramp, then landed full force on the flats.

“My right leg popped backwards,” Cartwright, now 39, says. “I knew immediately that something was wrong. It would be two surgeries and nine months before I could even try to walk again.”

She’d torn her meniscus and ACL. Pain was her new normal. Every night was sleepless. Prescribed Vicodin, Darvocet, Norco and hydrocodone, Cartwright began to have digestive issues and feared opioid addiction. Four months after her accident, Cartwright threw away her pharmaceuticals and began using marijuana, taking advantage of California’s medical marijuana laws that first went into effect in 1996.

Cartwright legally managed her pain for the next 13 years. She grew and harvested her own plants, studied cross-breeding and genetics, earned a license to supply the San Francisco dispensary Harborside, and developed a potent strain of high cannabidiol marijuana (CBD, a nonpsychoactive compound with medicinal properties) that won acclaim from the industry-leading High Times magazine and Oaksterdam News.

In July 2016, Cartwright met a Florida writer—yours truly—and soon decided to relocate to the Sunshine State. Love and relocation for my wife came with a price; the loss of a freedom, the legal right to use marijuana. In Florida, even the smallest amount of illicit marijuana possession risks a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

“I felt terrible about that part of moving here,” Cartwright says. “My pain is real. I don’t want to have to use hard drugs. Moving to Florida felt like going back in time to a less free place. The marijuana laws when I moved here were frightening.”

In November 2016, however, more than 6.5 million Florida voters approved the Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative, passing the initiative with a super majority of 71 percent. Only 2.6 million voted “no.”

Though the rollout took time and the legal battles were many, by July 1, 2017, access to medical marijuana was a reality. Florida’s law is restrictive compared with other states. No smoking or edibles are currently allowed, though new Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis promised to end the smoking ban as soon as he took office. At press time, a state House panel had approved a measure to allow smoking medical marijuana, but only with pre-rolled joints with filters. A Senate panel approved a similar measure later, paving the way for the likely end of the smoking ban by DeSantis’s March 15 deadline.

It’s expensive to obtain Florida’s Compassionate Use Registry Card; it costs on average $325 per year including doctors’ and state fees (doctors’ fees vary; the state charges $75 annually), compared with roughly $70 total in California (which has itself been made obsolete because California is now a recreational marijuana state). Florida’s warming attitude toward pot is part of a North American wave: 10 U.S. states have legalized recreational weed; 23 more have legalized medical use. Canada made marijuana legal this past October, leading to an immediate marijuana shortage across the country.

Emily D’Souza, formerly Cartwright, with Dr. Barry Gordon.


Image: Jennifer Soos

Last August, with Emily growing increasingly anxious and sleepless, ineffectively combating pain with over-the-counter medication and wondering if she would have to turn to the illegal market or even return to California, we visited the offices of Dr. Barry Gordon’s Compassionate Cannabis Clinic in Venice. Having studied the language of our 2016 law, it seemed that to qualify for a card, one would need to be in the terminal stages of cancer or AIDS. But after filling out the sort of paperwork that one has to at any medical facility (“Do you have asthma? Do you have any allergies?”) we were quickly met by “Dr. Barry” as he likes to be called, a hyperkinetic former ER doctor who took the state’s required two-hour medical marijuana course for licensing, one of 2,048 Florida doctors who had done so by February, according to Florida’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use (OMMU).

Dr. Barry speaks at a fast clip, interspersing facts about the law and marijuana with tidbits about his love for the Cleveland Indians. Likely, he has to speak this fast; his practice has been going gangbusters since its inception. When he began booking appointments on Dec. 15, 2016, 100 people signed up in the first hour. By Jan. 3, 2017, his whole first month was booked. His practice now serves 2,700 patients, average age 54, most living within 20 miles of his east Venice location. According to OMMU, as of February there were 230,670 medical marijuana patients across the state (of those, 182,470 are active; some do not renew). The people in the waiting room looked like a cross-section of Southwest Florida: Most had gray hair, some were visibly sick, one man was covered in tattoos. Others looked like churchgoers and golfers.

Emily’s expertise in the marijuana industry put her and Dr. Barry on a mutual plane of technical marijuana jargon. Within the first moments of her appointment, Dr. Barry put her at ease that her pain would qualify. Though neither he nor any doctor can prescribe marijuana under both Florida and federal law, Florida’s law provides that qualified doctors can “recommend” marijuana to patients, which then allows them to apply for the card. The card then permits them to make purchases in dispensaries according to their needs, which they determine themselves.

Emily falls under the law’s language that allows a doctor to recommend marijuana for “chronic nonmalignant pain caused by a qualifying medical condition.” Sufferers of PTSD also qualify, giving doctors opportunities to recommend marijuana to most who seek it.

“You have kids?” Dr. Barry asked my wife. “Why should you worry about CPS [Child Protective Services] coming and yanking your kids because you’re trying to ease your pain? Big Pharma is killing people; everybody knows it. Xanax, steroids, narcotics. The thing here is to get you legal. Nobody should be running around with the knife of illegality hanging over their head. Can medical marijuana be abused? Of course. But you don’t look like an eighth grader to me.”

Dr. Barry gave Emily a medical marijuana journal where she could track her reactions and experiences to the drug. Across the state, doctors are suggesting that all first-time marijuana patients “go low and go slow” with strengths and dosages until they understand how the drug affects them. After her examination, we spent an hour with a young patient advocate who explained where and how Emily could buy medical marijuana, and what the various products would do. She was also issued a temporary card with her medical marijuana ID number, allowing her to purchase medical marijuana at any of the state’s now 96 dispensaries, including one in Orlando that has a drive-thru. 

Our first stop was the MüV dispensary on Fruitville Road in Sarasota, operated by AltMed Florida, a partnership between the Plants of Ruskin nursery’s Glenn Dickman (the Dickman family is among the largest landholders in Hillsborough County) and CEO John Tipton, who served on the committee that helped craft the rules of the Florida law. Marijuana is big business, and it costs a lot to break in. Gov. Rick Scott’s administration set the requirements: a $60,000 nonrefundable fee to nurseries that wanted to snag the growing licenses in the state; the few lucky winners then had to pony up $5 million performance bonds. Complaints of political cronyism have dogged the licensing process here, as they have in other states.

A dispensary opened in early December in Venice, joining two dispensaries in Sarasota and one in North Port. As opposed to the mom-and-pop dispensaries in California that range from the exceptional to the exceptionally dirty, MüV was slick and clean, had the modern look and professional feel of an Apple store, and boasted a neatly uniformed staff of more than a dozen. Unlike in California, where dispensaries can source marijuana from any licensed grower, including small growers, Florida dispensaries can only sell marijuana they grow themselves. MüV’s marijuana is grown in Apollo Beach near Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center.

Emily and an MüV staffer began a long discussion about the various potencies of the sprays, vapes, pens and patches on offer with various levels of THC—the compound in marijuana that gets you “high”—and CBD—the compound that doesn’t, but has medicinal properties. She made a few CBD purchases, which all came in pretty, premium packaging, like at a jewelry boutique.

Two months later, we visited the newly opened Trulieve dispensary on Beneva in Sarasota and had a similar experience: upscale décor; professional staff; a quality, affordable product; and an ATM in the corner, as medical marijuana is still an all-cash business. Prices of all products match or are lower than illicit street prices.

Until the smoking ban is lifted, the current Florida law reflects the lawmakers who shaped and influenced it. Congressman Greg Steube vowed to me in a 2016 interview he would never allow marijuana to be smoked in our state for any reason. Patients are currently not allowed to buy traditional “bud”—the smokable dried flower of the plant—except for use in a smokeless vaporizer. (The Trulieve ceramic canisters, however, can be broken open with wire cutters and the bud removed and smoked in the normal way, an open secret across Florida.) But they can buy the much more powerful “shatter,” a marijuana concentrate as much as 10 times more potent. It’s as though, after the end of Prohibition, moonshine was legalized but not light beer.

For Mary—a Venice resident who asked that her real name not be used as she worries that the stigma still associated with marijuana could affect her business relationships—the law has been a godsend. Both of her 94-year-old parents are now medical marijuana patients.

“Look, it’s about their pain and about helping them sleep,” she says by phone. “It can be frustrating because some of their caregivers are still opposed to it. One of their caregivers is religious and won’t even touch it. Florida is moving forward, but still has a way to go.”

Another Venice resident, 45-year-old veterinary technician Octavio Colon, says medical marijuana has allowed him to get off a cocktail of pain medicine and muscle relaxants he was prescribed since beginning a battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A patient of Dr. Gordon, Colon has had his medical marijuana card for a year.     

“I was on Zoloft, Amitriptyline, hydrocodone, Flexeril, Trazodone, Ambien,” Colon explains. “But since I started with medical marijuana, I am completely off all those medications. My doctors were supportive because we have such a huge opioid problem here. It’s funny; my mom is old school, goody two-shoes about marijuana. But seeing its effects on me, she has come around. It doesn’t affect my organs, I don’t have to have my liver checked, and my numbers are better than they have ever been.”

Based on Colon’s experience, his 65-year-old uncle Nelson, a butcher, has also become a medical marijuana patient for his heart condition and arthritis.

“I don’t ever want to go back to those medications,” Colon says. “Cannabis has stabilized my emotions and my pain. It would be awful to go back to the time [before medical marijuana legalization].”    

“The law as written is silly right now,” my wife concludes. “But it was like this in California in the very beginning, too. It will all change as people become more educated and they see people they know benefiting from it.”

Though we know many hard-working, otherwise law-abiding people who smoke marijuana in our age group, for now Emily is the only person in our circle who has her card because the costs are just too prohibitive. But for her at least, life has returned to normal and she lives and sleeps pain-free once again.

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