Shiny packaging at Sarasota's newest dispensary isn't as persuasive as tales of the people who need its products

I have seen the future of the marijuana industry. And it looks a lot like ... an Apple store.

Last week, prior to its grand opening, I got a tour of Sarasota’s newest dispensary of medical marijuana — or, as the AltMed Florida folks prefer to call it, "cannabis infused products." Operating within a small strip mall on Fruitville Road, the elegantly spare space is all gleaming white hard surfaces, minimalist furniture, light box displays of "product" and perfectly positioned bursts of verdant plants (not the kind you’re thinking).

Lined up on a shelf were items for "swag bags" to be given to opening day customers — swanky ball caps, water bottles, can cozies and pens. There also was an in-store ATM, because there is no such thing as insurance coverage for a substance still illegal under federal law. No free samples either, even for journalists; every customer has to have been qualified by a physician and have in hand a card with a number that’s checked against a state database on every visit.

To one side was a discreet private "consultation" room for those in need of assistance to determine which of the "portfolio of delivery methods" they’d prefer. And AltMed — which is Sarasota-based but has been operating in Arizona for the past four years while waiting for Florida legalization and licensing — has an "extensive entourage" of options to choose from. There are "cannabis-infused topicals" (gels, creams and lotions), "smoke-free" inhalers, transdermal patches, tinctures and oral sprays and "vaping products" in an assortment of flavors, from Grape Ape to Sour Tsunami.

Director of marketing Todd Beckwith wasn’t wearing a white lab coat, but when I asked him about what was on display, he sounded so much like a chemist spewing out scientific terminology that he lost me at "proprietary extraction process."

"Our mission is to bring cannabis out of the shadows and legitimize it," said Beckwith, with the impeccable panache of the pharmaceuticals marketer he used to be.

To that end, the company has poured a whole lot of green into a medical model that includes a 150,000 square-foot "cultivation laboratory" in Apollo Beach, sleek branding and packaging and a staff of Ph.D. personnel, in order to differentiate itself from lower-end competitors. ("An R&D approach," in Beckwith’s lingo.) That extends to the trademarked name for the "full spectrum product line — "MüV"  (pronounced "move") — which is not an acronym for anything, but is meant to "dispel the myth of the lazy stoner" Beckwith said.

"Plus the umlauts over the ‘u’ also create a happy face," he added, flashing a happy face himself.

It’s easy to see all this slick superficiality as high-powered marketing aimed at generating lucrative returns, and certainly, that’s part of it. But easy money it is not. Navigating the complex and confusing regulatory environment for medical marijuana is "three steps forward, two steps back," Beckwith says.

"It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done," he said, "but also the most enjoyable."

And that’s not because he’s stoned all the time. It’s because of the people behind the packaging and the people who will benefit from the products.

Take AltMed’s co-founder, Lakewood Ranch resident Michael Smullen, who spent decades in the pharmacy industry, ultimately bringing a drug to market that treats respiratory tract infections. The sale of his startup, MedImmune, to AstraZeneca in 2007, brought him $15.6 billion, more than enough to allow him to retire at 51 and never lift a finger again.

But Smullen couldn’t shake the memory of his 2-year-old daughter having her first epileptic grand mal seizure while sitting on his lap. Or of his brother, who died from bladder cancer after struggling to overcome an addiction to the opioids prescribed for his pain. Both, he believed, could have been helped by medical marijuana if it had been available at the time.

Then there’s Ron Watson, whose son Dylan, died at the age of 10 after a painful struggle with leukemia. He doesn’t need the money either. After more than 25 years of highly profitable experience as a lobbyist for major Florida health care associations, he came home one day and told his wife he wanted to give it all up to advocate for a substance that might have eased his son’s difficult journey. She told him to go for it. For the past year he has done so, as executive director of the Florida Society of Cannabis Physicians.

Near the front desk of the new dispensary is a plaque with a quote Watson’s son scribbled on the whiteboard at Shands Hospital where patients were asked to set goals for their day. "Be awesome, cool and funny," Dylan wrote. Medical marijuana might have allowed Dylan to achieve that goal in his final, torturous days, Watson believes, days when, unable to bear another moment of watching his son’s suffering, he sometimes wished for his passing. 

In another section of today’s paper, you can read the powerful stories gathered by my colleague, Billy Cox, about hundreds of military veterans banding together to change federal policy and a Veteran’s Administration system that denies medicinal marijuana to treat pain, PTSD and a whole host of other unseen injuries, opting instead for addictive, expensive pharmaceutical medications.

More than any shiny packaging, clever branding or neurolinguistic programming, these stories of real people in real pain — converts to "plants over pills" as a way to treat a myriad of medical issues — make the most powerful case for nationwide acceptance of medical marijuana in all its forms.

Oops. I meant to say, for "the comprehensive spectrum of delivery methods for cannabis-infused products."

 

Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at 941-361-4834 or carrie.seidman@heraldtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarrieSeidman and Facebook at facebook.com/cseidman.