How to Get Rich in the Medical Marijuana Business (or Go Broke Trying)

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Ben Pollara, campaign manager for People United, flipped open his Rolodex. A Miami-based government consultant who'd advised Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Pollara landed on John Morgan, a prominent Orlando-based trial lawyer who had bundled $672,000 for Obama's reelection.

"Ben showed me the poll results," Morgan says, his syrupy Kentucky drawl oozing through the phone line. "Seven out of ten. I like those odds."

Morgan tells New Times he supports medical marijuana because it helped relieve his quadriplegic brother's pain. "He'd have violent back spasms," Morgan recalls. "Marijuana was the only thing that worked for him." His late father, who suffered from cancer and emphysema, also used marijuana. "He was tethered to machines and on all these drugs that he had no appetite," Morgan says.

Morgan formed a new political action committee called United for Care and raised close to $5 million through his law firm and family members. The only other major donor is Coral Gables philanthropist and Democratic fundraiser Barbara A. Stiefel, who kicked in $250,000. Morgan became the face of the campaign with radio and television spots all over Florida.

See also: Slideshow: How to Become a Medical Marijuana Millionaire in Ten Easy Steps

Republicans allege that Morgan hijacked the medical marijuana initiative to help his high-profile employee, Charlie Crist, win back the governorship from Rick Scott.

"It's an issue that the Democrats can use to pump up the youth vote," Alex Patton, Gainesville-based Republican political consultant, told Businessweek. Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist backing Scott, called the medical marijuana initiative a "game changer" for the 2014 election.

Legendary flip-flopper Crist signed the Marijuana Growhouse Eradication Act into law when he was the Republican governor. Now, he is running as a Democrat and is all for medical marijuana.

Morgan vehemently denies using the medical marijuana issue to benefit Crist. "If that were the case, I'd just write Charlie a check and go home," Morgan says. "I am not Machiavellian, as some people make me out to be."

If the amendment passes, Morgan insists he'll leave the financial profit to everyone else. "But once it's legal, I'm done. I can't grow Philodendron, much less marijuana, so no — I won't be getting in the business."

Step 2: Go to cannabis "training school" — maybe.

Dropping hundred-dollar bills on medical marijuana classes may seem like a good idea, and some school operators are already making a mint. But David Jones, communications director for the Florida Cannabis Network, a Melbourne-based nonprofit organization, cautions: "Some are trying to be perceived as experts and take advantage of the ill-informed."

Some classes may offer real insight; others could be just puffing smoke. Calkin says his Cannabis Career Institute can teach people how to create a business plan, find business partners, and recruit growers who can cultivate high-quality marijuana. Once students have paid their $299, they can attend as many seminars as they want. "In the marijuana industry, it is all about networking," Calkin says. "Some people won't work with you unless someone they know vouches for you. We introduce you to those people."

Yet it sounds like he has a low bar for who qualifies as an expert: "You can even become a consultant too after attending one seminar. You can start charging other people to teach them."

After serving the longest prison sentence ever (30 years) for a marijuana trafficking offense, Robert Platshorn has become the pitchman for making weed available to senior citizens. He's made a documentary called Should Grandma Smoke Pot? and is a public speaker on the topic.

In late March, Platshorn hosted his own seminar, called "Legal in Florida Medical Marijuana Business Conference." Held in West Palm Beach, Platshorn's event sold out despite the fact he charged $100 more per head than Calkin does. "I brought in the most successful experts from in and out of state to tutor Floridians on the hard facts involved in starting a real cannabis business," Platshorn says.

One of his featured speakers, Jeremy Bufford, claims to be the founder of Florida's first "brick and mortar" medical marijuana education center. A 33-year-old self-described businessman, Bufford incorporated Medical Marijuana Tampa in February, listing a corporate address that leads to a building with a church on the first floor and empty offices in the floors above it. His website shows that he offers medical marijuana courses online for $499, run by two "professors," one of whom was the valedictorian of Oaksterdam University, a grow school in Oakland, California.

Back in March, Bufford told New Times that he was opening a Miami campus this month and that he will operate 15 dispensaries in Florida. "There's no substitute for book learning, and since they're going to be selling some of their product back to us, we have a huge stake in our students' ability to grow pot well," he says. "We issue grades, we have homework, and you've gotta put some effort into this."

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.

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