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Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have now legalized marijuana for medical use. And in November Florida is poised to join the club. Voters there are expected to approve a medical marijuana measure on the fall ballot. Even if it passes, it could be some months before a marketplace is up and running. Still - as NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami - cannabis entrepreneurs from around the country are already heading to Florida and setting up shop.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando there's one every few weeks - a business conference devoted to a product that's still illegal.
TOM QUIGLEY: I wanted to welcome everybody here to CannaBiz Day Orlando.
ALLEN: There are a lot of names for marijuana. In the industry, though, they mostly call it cannabis. Tom Quigley runs a group called the Florida Cannabis Coalition. Don't confuse that with the Florida Medical Cannabis Association or the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida. Those are just three of the dozens of groups started in recent months since it became clear that Florida voters would soon have the opportunity to approve a measure allowing the use of medical marijuana. The vote won't be until November. But there are many who see Florida's impending embrace of medical marijuana as an opportunity too good to miss. Quigley greeted about 150 of them at his conference in Orlando.
QUIGLEY: We can't teach you in one day how to run a cannabis industry business. But what we can do is bring the best information to you.
ALLEN: There were seminars on cultivating the best strains, converting cannabis into oils and concentrates - also on marketing and legal issues. Since California became the first state to approve medical marijuana in 1996, 21 other states have followed suit. If Florida approves it, it will be the first state in the southeast to do so. And with nearly 20 million residents, it will be the biggest market outside of California. The National Cannabis Industry Association estimates medical marijuana will be a $785 million industry in Florida - one that Quigley says will have all kinds of economic opportunities.
QUIGLEY: You know, if you want to become a bud tender that works inside one of these dispensaries as an occupation - if you want to run your own business, there's that opportunity as well.
ALLEN: Right now in Florida, the cannabis industry is mostly talk. But money is lining up as well. Quigley is with ArcView, an investor's group that funds cannabis industry startups. A real estate company based in Arizona, Cannabis-RX, is also active here investing in properties that it plans to sell or lease to growers and operators of dispensaries. Llorn Kylo is the company's CEO.
LLORN KYLO: We look at light industrial commercial buildings that are in the right zoned areas of the cities. And we usually seek between 10,000 and about 100,000 square feet.
ALLEN: Along with real estate, Cannabis-RX also offers budding entrepreneurs financing and consulting services to help them get their businesses off the ground. At the Orlando conference, Meg Sanders flew in from Denver. She's with Gaia, a grower with three dispensaries in Colorado. Sanders says she's always looking for opportunities to expand, including in Florida.
MEG SANDERS: For us, we've worked very hard to create a fantastic template of what we do. And if there's opportunity in other states, we'll definitely be there at the table.
ALLEN: Exactly what the opportunities will be in Florida are unclear. If the medical marijuana amendment passes, it'll be another six months to a year before the state issues regulations. Florida's governor recently signed into law a very limited version of medical marijuana - one that allows production and sale only of a special strain. As part of the law, just five nurseries will be allowed to grow it. And they have to be large operations in business in Florida for at least 30 years. A prospective entrepreneur at the conference, Chris Rumph, says that regulation has many wondering how welcoming Florida officials will be to the emerging cannabis industry.
CHRIS RUMPH: The opening up to nurseries that have been around for 30 years - I think that's kind of silly. We live in a state where we've got thousands of nurseries with people that are very educated and knowledgeable about plants and how to grow things effectively. So there's a little bit of suspicion there for me.
ALLEN: How the medical marijuana regulations will be written, though, is for the future. For activists and entrepreneurs, the first task is mobilizing Florida voters to approve the medical marijuana amendment that will be on the ballot in November. Greg Allen. NPR News, Miami.
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