Medical marijuana could be available to a select group of Florida patients as early as next week, after health officials gave the go-ahead for the state's first pot dispensary to begin distributing products.
The Northwest Florida operation, known as "Trulieve," is one of six dispensing organizations licensed by the state Department of Health to grow, process and distribute pot that purportedly does not get users high but is believed to alleviate life-threatening seizures.
Wednesday's authorization for Trulieve to begin selling products was the first issued by the Department of Health.
The low-THC cannabis, first authorized in 2014, will be available to patients with chronic muscle spasms, cancer or severe forms of epilepsy.
Although Trulieve is the first to get its products to market, the operation may not be too busy once it opens its doors next week, at least for a while.
Only 15 doctors have signed up to order the low-THC products, and no patients are yet registered on a statewide database of Floridians who are eligible for the treatment. Dispensaries can only sell the pot products to patients or their representatives who are registered on the database.
Doctors were supposed to be able to begin ordering the non-euphoric products more than a year ago, but the process has been tangled up in legal challenges.
"We are happy to announce that we have passed all inspections --- from growing and processing to dispensing --- and are the very first medical cannabis provider in the state to receive these formal authorizations. And we are most excited to get this much anticipated medicine to the patients of Florida," Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers said in a statement issued Wednesday
The operation will open its Tallahassee dispensing facility next week, when it will also begin delivering to patients statewide, according to a press release.
"Our new law worked. Promise made, promise kept," Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who was instrumental in passage of the 2014 law, said Wednesday on Twitter.
Concerned that challenges over a limited number of licenses could further delay startup of the pot operations, the Legislature this year passed a law ensuring that winning nurseries could keep their licenses, even if judges decided that losing applicants should have been selected by health officials. And the law allows for three more dispensing organizations once more than 250,000 patients are registered to receive the marijuana treatment.
The 2016 law also allows the dispensing organizations to grow full-strength pot, which will be available to terminally ill patients. Trulieve expects to begin selling the full-strength marijuana in early August, the company said Wednesday.
More than two dozen applicants vied for the highly-sought after licenses, and challenges for additional licenses are still ongoing.
Health officials estimate that about 250,000 patients could be eligible for the low-THC treatment, but just a fraction of those are expected to seek the pot products. State Office of Compassionate Use Director Christian Bax testified last week that health officials do not have projections for how many patients might be eligible for full-strength marijuana, but that number is expected to be much smaller.
Marijuana operators, however, have their eyes on a more lucrative market --- up to $3.5 billion in annual sales, according to one estimate by state economists --- that could open up in Florida after the November election.
Voters will decide whether Florida should legalize full-strength marijuana for a variety of medical ailments, including Parkinson's disease, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS and post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2014, a similar proposal narrowly failed to get the 60 percent approval from voters required for passage of constitutional amendments in the state.