With the looming November 2 vote on Amendment 2, which would expand medical marijuana in Florida for specific diseases and conditions, one thing is clear: Weed is a polarizing topic. As New Times reported in August, according to one of the most respected marijuana-usage surveys in America, roughly half the residents in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties think smoking weed once a month is "harmful" and should be avoided. The other half rallied for legalization in our Facebook comments.
Although voters disagree, businesses are preparing for a yes vote on Amendment 2. Surterra Therapeutics, a hybrid company, works hand-in-hand with longtime Homestead nursery Alpha Foliage. (Disclosure: Reporter Stacey Russell is related to Surterra's director of public relations.) Together with Alpha, Surterra cultivates, extracts, packages, markets, and dispenses medical marijuana. (Surterra cannot distribute medical cannabis without a nursery partner because of Florida law.) It's one of just two dispensaries authorized by the state. Surterra is based in Georgia, but because of the legalization of medical marijuana in Florida, the company has set up camp in Tampa and Tallahassee. New Times toured the Tallahassee cultivation center.
This is no humble stoner setup. Surterra Therapeutics' facility is a pristine science lab unlike anything you've seen on Weeds. But it also houses an epic amount of bud, heavily regulated and tested cannabis that could dramatically change the world of medicine and addiction. Here's what we learned.
Not surprisingly, this place is locked down. Legally, we can't even tell you where it is; this reporter had to sign a nondisclosure agreement simply to get inside. Imagine a field on the outskirts of the state capital, way out in the middle of nowhere. That is where you will find Surterra, as well as its 24/7 armed guards posted at two access points to the grounds. They have the unenviable task of protecting not only the plants but also the expensive medical equipment inside.
Once you get inside, you are required to wear disposable medical booties and scrubs to ensure the crop is not exposed to any harmful outside elements. There are multiple secure locations at Surterra’s indoor facility; most are harvesting areas where plants are being raised. Upon entering one of three rooms full of marijuana that sits under the yellow hue of grow lamps, we learned that touching anything is forbidden and will quickly get you kicked out.
Forget any preconceived notions you have of hippie farm workers in jeans and hemp necklaces. Surterra's employees fall into two categories: medical (people who analyze and produce cannabis oil) and agricultural (people who grow the weed). All of them are dressed in lab coats or jumpsuits and are mostly buttoned-up in the personality department. The atmosphere is, well, kind of boring. There wasn’t one Bob Marley poster or neon leaf sign in sight.
Though the hippie aesthetic is lacking at Surterra, its hippie philosophy is in place: Everything at the weed farm is organic and chemical-free, from the seeds used in the initial stages of growth to the coconut-based soil. No nonorganic chemicals can be found in the 6,000-square-foot facility. “Anything we put inside of our patients has to be completely natural,” said Surterra's head of cultivation, who identified himself only as James. “We have to get away from the current state of the medical field, where opioids and the chemicals they possess are the only cure.”
Once harvested, the marijuana crop is used to produce high cannabidiol (CBD) and low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) extract. Those extracts are administered in concentrated oils, tinctures, and lotions, created with medical equipment that looks like anything you've seen in a chemistry lab. Noneuphoric strains are for patients diagnosed with conditions such as epilepsy, cancer, and chronic muscle spasms. Under Florida's right-to-try law, terminally ill patients can receive full-strength marijuana only if patients have been given two doctors' diagnosis of less than a year to live. That means that right now, THC products (AKA the things that get you high) are accessible only to the terminally ill.
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To the Surterra staff, this isn't weed or pot or even marijuana. This is cannabis and only cannabis; during New Times' visit no one employed there referred to the product as anything else. Monica Russell, Surterra's director of public relations, explained, "We want to get away from the word 'marijuana' only because of the stigma that comes along with it. I am a conservative Republican, and when I tell people with similar political views what I do, there has been occasional negative judgment. Surterra is a medically based company truly changing the lives of people who are suffering. For me, this is personal. Cancer made the last years of my grandfather's life pretty miserable. I wish this would have been legal during his battle."