Caught in considered one of Florida’s medical marijuana deserts? Assist will be on the way in which
Let’s start with some math. As of this week, 293 pharmacies have been opened in Florida, attended by the 441,000 Floridians currently holding a medical marijuana card.
That said, there is roughly one pharmacy for every 1,500 patients in the state.
That seems like a solid relationship. There are only 12 pharmacies in New Jersey that serve 81,000 patients – that’s one pharmacy for every 6,750 patients.
But unlike New Jersey, Florida is a huge state in terms of area. A quick look at Florida’s pharmacy locations reveals tight clusters in urban areas and along the coasts. If you don’t live in these areas, you are out of luck. There are several sprawling regions with no pharmacy for more than 100 miles.
These cannabis desserts present a frustrating challenge for patients who have to drive several hours at least once a month to get to the nearest pharmacy. Florida has strict shopping limits so it is not possible to stock up like it was a trip to Costco.
A three hour round trip for medication
The state’s largest medical marijuana desert is located in the north of the state and is concentrated in rural Suwannee County.
Suwannee County is halfway between Jacksonville and Tallahassee and has a population of nearly 50,000. The county seat of Live Oak has the densest population in the area, but the closest pharmacies are 70 miles away in Tallahassee. That’s a 90-minute drive in either direction.
Live Oak residents treating their chronic pain with opioid prescriptions can fill them out at the local CVS, Walgreens, or Winn-Dixie – Live Oak has it all. However, patients flushing their pills in favor of cannabis need almost a full day to drive to and from the pharmacy. Many people with regular working hours, young children or disabilities simply cannot do that.
Lots of pharmacies in Gainesville – but none in the area. (Dispensary map available in the Leafly app.)
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Why are there no pharmacies here?
Blame the state, blame the local communities, and blame the pharmacy companies themselves. All three created this situation.
In a state of more than 20 million people, there are only 22 companies licensed to sell medical marijuana.
Florida cities and towns can be stingy on how many pharmacy licenses are issued in their respective jurisdictions and to whom those licenses go. Local startups are often passed over in favor of larger, more established companies with deep pockets. Many of these larger companies are not interested in serving small communities. That makes no economic sense. So they are grouped in the most populous regions.
That wouldn’t be a problem in an open industry. Typically, when a city or county is underserved, a local entrepreneur will open a small boutique and fill the niche.
But Florida’s medical marijuana industry isn’t wide open. It is strictly regulated and vertically integrated. That said, there are only 22 companies with medical marijuana licenses in a state with more than 20 million people. Of these 22 companies, only 14 have actually opened pharmacies.
And those 22 companies must be fully integrated by law, which means they must grow the crops, make the products, and sell them in retail stores. There is no specialization – and that means it costs a lot of money to get into the business in the first place.
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A top heavy industry in Florida
In Florida, a small handful of companies have licenses that allow them to open up to 30 or more pharmacies. However, these companies may not open all 30 stores and distribute them evenly across the state. That would not make economic sense for them. They open pharmacies where the surrounding population is dense and pedestrian traffic is heavy and steady.
A local entrepreneur has no chance of opening a niche pharmacy for a small town.
It’s made for a top-heavy market. There are 22 licensees, but the five largest companies operate two-thirds of all pharmacies.
Why don’t local entrepreneurs just apply for a license? You can not. The state does not issue any new ones. Existing licenses cost millions of dollars when they are available. Last year, the owner of two separate medical cannabis licenses in Florida brought in one for $ 40 million (with the option to open up to 30 pharmacies) and the other for $ 55 million (with the option of up to 35 pharmacies to open).
Highlands County: Finally a Pharmacy
Ben Pollara, director of Florida for Care and one of the state’s longtime attorneys on patient, access and legalization, acknowledges the problem. But he’s optimistic that things are getting better.
“Access is getting better, even if it’s still not great,” Pollara told Leafly. “A year ago people had to leave two or three counties. Access wasn’t there then, but it is much better now than it was then and should continue to improve in the future. “
That is exactly the situation in Highlands County, South Florida. With a population of more than 100,000, this is not a Podunk County. Until recently, medical marijuana patients who live in the county seat of Sebring had to drive more than 90 minutes to the nearest pharmacy in Sarasota.
Finally, a single pharmacy opened in the city of Avon Park in October. The One Plant business there is operated by Bluma Wellness, which is opening five additional One Plant pharmacies in Florida. These other stores are in populous areas like Jacksonville and St. Petersburg, which suggests the company wanted to establish itself in high-traffic areas before branching out into smaller markets. (Bluma Wellness officials declined to respond to Leafly’s request for comment from the company.)
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Delivery services provide some access
For many patients trapped in these deserts, delivery services have bridged the void.
“For all paths [the state of Florida has] screwed up, “Pollara said,” one thing they got right was creating a mandate for access to delivery. “
Florida law specifically protects home delivery of medical marijuana as long as drivers and vehicles meet certain safety requirements. While there are some time restrictions on deliveries, there are no limits to how far a vendor is legally allowed to ship medical marijuana.
Obviously, it would be inconvenient for individual pharmacy delivery drivers to drive hours to remote potted deserts, but OnePlant company has come up with a solution: a medical marijuana delivery hub system that serves different parts of the state on different days, streamlines deliveries and strong expands access to remote areas.
As of November 2020, the OnePlant network will fully cover all rural areas in Central and South Florida. Expansion is currently planned in the counties of North Florida, particularly in the Panhandle area, which is still the most underserved area in the state at the time, comes to pharmacies and access.
Change could come
At the state level, the Florida Supreme Court will look into arguments in the near future to pave the way for non-vertically issued pharmacy licenses in the state.
The end of Florida’s vertical integration rule could open the door to smaller businesses.
This could greatly expand the opportunities for small and local businesses to open locations in these underserved communities. For more information about the legal requirements in this case, see the South Florida Hospital News.
Medical marijuana has been legal in Florida since 2016, and efforts to fully legalize marijuana are proceeding at full speed to reach a possible vote in 2022. While great strides have been made so far, the need for the legal profession never ends, especially when it comes to accessibility to safe and legal medical marijuana products remains an issue in several large parts of Florida.
Floridians looking for resources and ways to help can visit both Florida for Care and Make it Legal Florida to learn more on the topic.
Amanda Kondolojy is a freelance writer with a passion for coffee, travel, and her three cats. She lives in central Florida.
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