Out of the weeds

A local company aims to deliver a big dose of top-notch service to the nascent medical marijuana industry.

By: Mark Gordon | Contributor

How high is interest in medical marijuana in the Lakewood Ranch-Sarasota area?

So high one of the state’s pioneering companies in the industry, Sarasota-based AltMed, received some 900 résumés in response to a recent employment ad it posted. That was for about a dozen positions, in a dispensary that hasn’t opened yet.

The interest in AltMed, co-founded by Lakewood Ranch resident Michael Smullen, spreads to potential clients, too. “A day doesn’t go by when someone doesn’t stop by the office or call us for information,” says Todd Beckwith, AltMed marketing director.

The core challenge for AltMed, and some other companies getting in early on medical marijuana — or the preferred industry term, medical cannabis — is twofold: Navigate a complex and confusing regulatory environment while overemphasizing marketing and branding to differentiate themselves from lower-end competitors.

“There are a lot of fly-by-nights and pop-ups in this industry,” says Patrick DeLuca, CEO of Compassionate Cannabis Clinic in Venice. DeLuca says like AltMed, interest for medical marijuana is booming at the clinic he helps oversee. Adds DeLuca: “We’ve exceeded all expectations.”

Beckwith says the goal, from when AltMed, or Alternative Medical Enterprises, was founded in 2014, has always been to be a leading high-end medical cannabis company in Florida and nationally. That’s required a significant capital investment, including $10 million in a plant in Arizona and another significant investment in Florida operations.

“We are investing so much in this because it’s the right thing to do, even though it might cost more,” Beckwith says. “We are bringing standardization as much as we can to our business. This is medicine. We want to be like the pharmaceutical industry, with an R&D approach.”

AltMed’s corporate office is off Fruitville Road east of Interstate 75, an exit south of The Mall at University Town Center. The company, in a partnership it signed last year with fourth-generation agricultural business Plants of Ruskin, formed AltMed Florida. Plants of Ruskin will handle the grow side of the venture from a 150,000-square-foot facility in Hillsborough County, where it already has zoning approval and permitting. AltMed will handle medical cannabis products, testing, marketing and sales from its Sarasota office, where it has about 10 employees. “Their reputation is paramount,” Beckwith says of Plants of Ruskin. “We are excited to partner with them.”

AltMed recently received approval from Sarasota County to open a medical cannabis dispensary in the county, in a shopping center on Fruitville, west of I-75. A Manatee County spokesman says there are no medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated Manatee County, and no applications are before commissioners. The city of Bradenton, through mid-April, has approved one dispensary.

Medical maneuvers

AltMed and its medical cannabis peers exist because Florida voters, by an overwhelming majority, passed Amendment 2 in 2016. The measure, to approve or reject “use of marijuana for debilitating medical conditions” passed with more than 70% of the vote. (A similar measure failed in 2014; marijuana is illegal under federal law. )

The final law after the amendment, a compromise House-Senate bill passed after a special legislative session in May 2017, allows for 17 medical marijuana licensees statewide. Those 17 entities, licensed by the Florida Department of Health, are allowed to open up to 25 dispensaries under state law.

Yet even with Amendment 2’s passage, medical marijuana is a multi-layered, complicated and legally confounding process — for patients and companies. (See sidebar for patient rules.)

Tallahassee-based Trulieve, for example, filed a lawsuit against the state in Tallahassee in early April over the medical marijuana laws. Trulieve, which, like AltMed, recently received approval to open a dispensary in Sarasota County, in Venice, alleges the state’s medical marijuana law dispensary cap is arbitrary and improper.

On the local government side, county and city commissions can deny a dispensary based on planning and zoning rules. That was the crux of the debate at the Sarasota County Commission in mid-April, when AltMed and Trulieve applied for dispensaries. Backed by approval from the Planning Commission, county commissioners, for the most part, leaned toward approving the dispensary applications from a medical standpoint. Their anxiety: seeing the facility misused and the county turned into a pot haven.

“I personally support the medical use of it,” said Commission Chairwoman Nancy Detert at one meeting, adding she saw it work well for a relative, “but I don’t want to see one at every shopping center.”

Commissioners approved the dispensaries by a 4-1 vote. The lone no vote was Mike Moran. Like Detert, Alan Maio voted yes — with the caveat he doesn’t want to see medical marijuana business booming. “I can assure you, I’d be the most aggravated person you’ve ever seen if I drove by this place and there were lines out the door,” Maio told Beckwith and other AltMed officials at one meeting.

AltMed, in getting its approvals, has spent considerable time and money, from reports to legal assistance. “Everything in our industry is three steps forward, two steps back,” Beckwith says, speaking in March from the company’s headquarters. “I spent 10 years with Merck in the pharmaceutical industry, and there is nothing that is more stringent than (medical cannabis.) If you’re not passionate about this, you will never make it.”

Florida focus

Smullen, the co-founder of AltMed, first began to look to start a medical cannabis company in the late 2000s. Smullen’s motivation: His daughter suffered from epilepsy and had her first grand mal seizure when she was 2. And his brother died from bladder cancer — only after he struggled to overcome addictions to opioids designed to ease his pain while sick. Both loved ones, Smullen learned, could have been helped by medical marijuana.

Fortunately, Smullen was in a position to do something about it, both in knowledge and with his wallet. He had spent decades in the pharmacy industry, including helping lead a startup, MedImmune, which created and brought a drug to market that prevents and treats respiratory tract infections. The company surpassed $1.5 billion in annual sales, and industry titan AstraZeneca bought it in 2007 for $15.6 billion.

Then a 51-year-old retiree, Smullen moved from Maryland to the Lakewood Ranch area with his family. Smullen is chairman of AltMed Enterprises, the parent entity over AltMed Florida, AltMed Arizona and MuV, the company’s exclusive product line.

Smullen and Beckwith’s attention, moving forward, has turned to the retail side of the dispensaries, where the marketing director says one of AltMed’s competitive advantages is its multiple delivery methods.

That can be traced to the exclusive MuV line of medical cannabis products. One of those products is a smoke-free and inhalation-free patch that delivers slow-release, dosage-controlled cannabis. Another one is a metered-dose cannabis inhaler, which provides a faster and more discreet dose. Other MuV products that will be available in AltMed Florida dispensaries, like the one approved for Fruitville Road, include cannabis oil, hydrating lotion, pain-relief cream and sports gel. (Florida’s medical marijuana law allows for it to be used as an edible, oil, topical or vaporized. Whole-flower cannabis and smoking medical cannabis is banned under the law.)

Beckwith says the company plans to open its allotted 25 dispensaries in Florida, each with about 10-12 employees. Others are coming soon in Tampa and Apollo Beach, he adds. The dispensaries will be high on comfort level, with lots of simplified options for customers in a dignified setting. “We will not be Walmart,” Beckwith says. “We will be more like Nordstrom.”

All MuV products, says Beckwith, stem from research refined in the Arizona lab and include the company’s award-winning, proprietary ethanol extraction process. The company is licensed to sell MuV products in Arizona, Florida and Colorado, and is working on approvals in up to a dozen other states and five countries. But the Sunshine State remains a priority.

“What drives this is to help Florida patients,” Beckwith says. “That’s what we were working for as a company. We want to meet the demand.”