The ladies of Florida’s growing Cannabis industry

When Florida voters approved medical cannabis in 2016, they ignited an entrepreneurial spark among women in the state. The reasons are subjective: many in the industry point to the fact that this is a compassionate field, where medical patients need time and consideration, traits that may be found more naturally in women. Others argue that this relatively new field doesn’t have the entrenched patriarchy that dominates other professions.

In 2017, Marijuana Business Daily published figures showing that 26 percent of all executives across the cannabis market are women. That’s six percent higher than the average among U.S. businesses. While still not equitable, it signals a notable shift and an opportunity for women. With Florida’s legal medical marijuana business expected to generate about $456 million in sales in 2018, there’s enormous potential for more women to spot a void and jump in to fill it.

That’s exactly what Dr. Lora Lee Brown did in September of 2016. A Florida Board of Health-certified physician since 2002 with specialties in interventional pain management, regenerative medicine and stem cell therapy, Brown became one of the first state-approved medical marijuana physicians. She founded Access Marijuana RX in St. Petersburg to recommend medical cannabis for patients suffering from pain, disease and the effects of aging.

Before opening her clinic, Brown was at the forefront of the opioid pain epidemic and lobbied hard for regulations to curb abuse. She’s passionate about the non-addictive medical benefits of cannabis, especially in helping patients recover from opioid addiction. “Cannabis can block withdrawal symptoms and is a very potent tool to control pain,” she says. “Opioids mask the pain, but cannabis reduces the inflammation that often causes pain and promotes healing. We currently have 1,100 patients and we’ve been 75 percent successful in weaning patients off opioids and anti-anxiety medications.”

It is the responsibility of Brown and other qualified physicians to diagnose patients and determine if medical marijuana is an appropriate treatment. Once diagnosed and approved, doctors enter the patient’s personal details and dosage recommendations into the statewide Medical Marijuana Use Registry. Patients are then free to visit a dispensary. “We differentiate ourselves by sitting down and educating patients on the best products for their specific problems, and by visiting dispensaries on a quarterly basis,” says Brown. “We can then help guide patients to different dispensaries for different products.”

This is an important distinction because the Florida market is vertically integrated. That means a licensed dispensary must grow and make 100 percent of the cannabis products it sells. That’s why different dispensaries may carry different products, strains, and strengths of cannabis.

Dispensaries were a void that another female cannabis entrepreneur jumped in to fill when medical marijuana became legal in Florida. Kim Rivers, a self-described “recovering lawyer,” was initially approached by a few companies to help with the application process to become a licensed dispensary. Today, she’s the CEO of Trulieve, one of the first medical marijuana providers in the state that now operates 22 dispensaries from the Panhandle to South Florida, including three in the Tampa Bay area.

A native of Jacksonville, and daughter of a police officer and an elementary school assistant principal, Rivers “never thought in a million years” she’d be the CEO of a very large cannabis company. Now, she’s a passionate advocate for the medical benefits of using cannabis for pain management, and for getting patients off opioids.

“There are so many studies showing that from a chemical standpoint, cannabis is drastically less harmful over the short and long term with respect to the incredible damage opioids do over time,” says Rivers. “An article a year ago in The American Journal of Medicine also showed that the rate of opioid prescription renewals decreased dramatically in areas where there is robust access to medical cannabis.”

For Rivers, this all adds up to a hoped-for policy shift where facts and research can begin to change legislation. “I believe we’re at the tipping point of the end of prohibition against cannabis, and to be a part of that is humbling and very rewarding,” she says.

While licensed dispensaries are the only companies that can legally distribute products that contain THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces a high feeling, there are no such regulations against pure CBD isolate, another cannabinoid in the cannabis plant that is non-psychoactive and lauded for its healing properties.

That intrigued oncology nurse Susan Scherer. In working with hundreds of cancer patients, Scherer identified a need for nutrition that could help rebuild the body during and after cancer treatments, and provide the benefits of CBD, which include appetite stimulation and pain control.

“Eighty-percent of stage-four cancer patients die from muscle wasting diseases like cachexia, not cancer,” says Scherer. “Patients were telling me privately that they were using marijuana to help stimulate the appetite and control the pain. I took a stand and decided to create a product for them.”

Scherer, and co-owner Matt Eastman, created Heavenly Hash Creamery, a line of 6 high-fat, high-protein ice cream flavors infused with CBD. The response has been so positive that the company is working on expansion plans for a new 20,000 square foot plant in Manatee County.

“I believed there was a better way than to just keep throwing drugs at people,” says Scherer. “With our ice cream, people don’t have to take the opioids or the anti-nausea drugs. We’ve even had soldiers with PTSD tell us that our ice cream helped them get off anxiety and anti-psychotic drugs.”

Heavenly Hash Creamery ice cream is now available online and in 39 retail locations, including several in the Bay Area. 

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