Polk’s first medical marijuana dispensary opens

LAKELAND — Penny Wells of Lakeland qualified as a medical marijuana patient last spring, and since then she has either traveled to Tampa or made online orders to get her medication.

Thursday morning, Wells stood inside the gleaming space of a Curaleaf store in Lakeland for the opening of Polk County’s first medical marijuana dispensary. She declared it an “awesome” occasion.

“It’s literally a 10-minute drive from my house, less than that, with no traffic, compared to 30 minutes with nothing but traffic,” she said. “I’m really shocked to see one in Polk County.”

Wells, 53, said she has been diagnosed with severe fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease and osteoarthritis, as well as other ailments that don’t cause pain. She uses a cane to walk and has a service dog.

She was one of several patients arriving Thursday morning at the store, located at 3145 U.S. 98 N., in the Market Square shopping center. A temporary white banner bearing the Curaleaf logo was posted on an exterior wall above the entrance.

Curaleaf President Lindsay Jones bubbled with quiet enthusiasm as he oversaw the opening of the company’s 11th dispensary. Curaleaf, based in Miami, is one of 10 companies awarded licenses by the Florida Department of Health to dispense cannabis products.

Jones is a Lakeland native and graduated from the defunct Rochelle High School.

“It is very exciting for me,” Jones said. “Fifty years ago, when I graduated from high school, if you told me that I’d come back to my hometown, Lakeland, in 2018 as CEO of a medical marijuana company and open a store in my hometown, that’s a bet I probably would have lost.”

Jones said Curaleaf will eventually have 14 to 16 employees working in the 3,079-square-foot shop.

Before Thursday, the company’s closest dispensaries to Lakeland were in Orlando, St. Petersburg and Palm Harbor. Curaleaf also offers home deliveries.

Florida voters in 2016 approved a constitutional amendment allowing the medical use of cannabis-based products. Proponents say the medications can relieve pain, increase appetite for cancer patients and suppress seizures in people with epilepsy, among other effects.

Jones said cannabis products also spare patients the side effects and risk of addiction posed by some prescription medications, including opioid pain relievers.

Wells said she had been prescribed oxycodone, an opioid, for about eight years but can no longer get it because of a change in Florida law aimed at preventing abuse. She said cannabis products are effective in reducing her symptoms.

As she prepared to leave, Wells seemed pleased with her experience.

“It’s different than what I’m used to, but the employees are very well-informed and very friendly, better informed than every other one of the dispensaries I’ve used,” she said.

Florida law does not allow dispensaries to sell marijuana in a form that can be smoked, though that is under legal challenge. Curaleaf and other companies dispense oils, capsules, balms and vaporizing devices and cartridges.

Those products were displayed in locked glass display cases set into a counter. Listed prices included $22 for 150mg of vaporizer pen oil and $90 for a 600mg bottle of CBD oil.

A menu screen on a wall showed a fuller listing of products derived from different plant strains. Another screen played a loop of videos promoting the company and offering information about medical marijuana.

Curaleaf sells products with and without THC, the compound in marijuana that yields psychoactive effects. Some products are derived from plants with high levels of cannabidiol (CBD), the other main compound with pharmaceutical effects, and the store also sells oils containing both compounds in varying ratios.

Michael Costa, the regional dispensary operations manager, said Curaleaf is one of the only Florida companies that offers products made from marijuana flowers.

T-shirts, sunglasses and drink koozies labeled with the Curaleaf logo were also for sale.

Employees in white polo shirts bearing the green Curaleaf logo stood behind the counter, answering questions and handing products to patients. A large, rectangular sign on a wall behind the counter displayed the logo in white against a green background of living moss, a motif found at all the company’s dispensaries.

Frank Sinatra songs played from a portable speaker.

Patients must have a state-issued ID card and a recommendation from an approved doctor to buy any marijuana-based products. The store has an entry area with a check-in counter. An employee confirms that visitors are eligible to purchase medications before unlocking a second door leading into the main space.

Though ID cards are required for purchases, Jones said the dispensary welcomes those who are merely curious about medical marijuana. He said employees will meet visitors in the front space and give them information about finding a qualified doctor and applying for a state ID.

The dispensary’s manager, Mandalyn Dalton, has a retail background. Jones said Dalton has gone through considerable training, including work at other dispensaries, since she was hired in April.

Before Thursday’s opening, Dalton introduced herself to managers at other stores in the strip shopping center, Jones said. Market Square includes an Amscot Financial outlet, a Guitar Center and a Bealls Outlet, among other stores and restaurants.

Dalton has also attended city events and befriended leaders of the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, Jones said. The company promoted its new location through social media and online advertising, while patients also learned of the opening from doctors and other patients.

Sitting in the store’s community room, Jones said he emphasizes the personal touch to all of his employees. He repeatedly mentioned the company’s commitment to fostering an environment of care, compassion and empathy.

“One of the charges I give to all my dispensary managers is I’m looking for my dispensaries to be that shining dispensary on the hill,” he said. “I know that sounds kind of corny, but that’s exactly what I want us to be viewed as.”

Costa told of checking out of his Lakeland hotel room Thursday morning and having the desk clerk ask about the logo on his company shirt. He told her he was headed to the opening of a Curaleaf store in town.

“She almost started crying because her mother suffers from scleroderma (a tissue disorder), and she was really thankful we’re here opening a store,” Costa said. “She said that (medical marijuana) was the only thing that helped her mother. She thanked me and said, ‘I’m so glad you guys are here. Keep doing the good work’.”

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.

Source: http://www.newschief.com/news/20180830/polks-first-medical-marijuana-dispensary-opens

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