There are 21 million people in Florida, millions of whom will eventually qualify for the medical-grade marijuana that voters approved in November. Very soon, a hell of a lot of weed will be legally sold in the Sunshine State. And so far, lawmakers have given exactly seven companies the right to grow and sell all of that pot.
While Tallahassee might yet hand out a few more licenses by the end of the session, the seven-member pot cartel is already cashing in big-time on its advantage. Yesterday Canadian firm Aphria paid $25 million to buy out Chestnut Hill Tree Farm, an Alachua nursery with one of those licenses. And last year, Massachusetts-based Palliatech bought a minority stake in Miami's only legal pot grower, Costa Nursery Farms.
As millions of dollars flow into those lucky license-holders, critics say the state is letting a de facto monopoly rake in major cash at the expense of the patients who need that medical pot.
"The Legislature may ultimately act to sanction what will be the creation of the largest marijuana growers in the world outside the Sinaloa cartel," says Ben Pollara, head of United for Care, which spearheaded Florida's successful medical marijuana campaign. "Which begs the question: Which licensee is El Chapo looking at buying?"
Florida's approach to creating a regulated medical marijuana industry flies in the face of what's worked nationally, industry insiders say. Massachusetts, with less than a fourth of Florida's population, will soon have hundreds of license-holders. More than 500 are allowed to grow and sell in Colorado. And even tiny Vermont, with all of 670,000 residents, has eight licensed growers.
But Florida has highly restricted its licensing since first allowing non-THC strains to be grown in 2015. Even after voters approved full-blown medical weed last November, there's been heavy pushback to efforts to bring more farms and potential retailers into the mix.
Sen. Jeff Brandes has proposed a rules overhaul that would open up more licenses, but he has faced heavy pushback. (And don't even ask what nonsense the House is up to.) Why?
"I've never seen anything like the absolute greed going on here," says one medical marijuana industry insider who asked not to be named. "I've never seen anything as bald-faced."
That's why we're seeing gigantic deals like Aphria's purchase, which market analysts say puts a value of close to $200 million on a single pot license. And it explains why those seven license-holders are fighting like hell to hang on to their share of the pie.
"Behind the scenes, these seven guys have hired an army of the best lobbyists in the state," the insider says. "These guys are trying to justify outrageous valuations for their licenses as they raise capital. And their message has been 'Look, it's game over; we're going to be the only seven license-holders in the state.'"