Photo by Jake Lewis
Florida, as you'll probably know from the cannibalistic drug casualties and mother-daughter porn duos, is a lot of things. One thing it's not, however, is a US state where you can buy weed from a licensed dispensary rather than from a teenager's drawstring backpack.
But that could all be set to change. As the state's gubernatorial race heats up, medical marijuana has become a key issue, and in ten months Floridians will be asked to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment permitting the prescription of medical marijuana. The amendment needs 60 percent of the vote to be passed, and considering public support is lingering somewhere around the 80-percent mark, it looks pretty likely that it's going to happen.
Anticipating the arrival of a new green economy, Jeremy Bufford is setting up Florida's first cannabis university—Medical Marijuana Tampa—to help anyone hoping to enter the weed industry gain the requisite skills. I gave Jeremy a call to find out what exactly he'll be teaching his students.
VICE: What made you start a cannabis university?
Jeremy Bufford: Well, honestly, it was a way for us to be a first mover in the space, because we won’t be able to actually operate our treatment centers and our laboratory facility until mid-to-late 2015. We have the opportunity from now until then to operate under our business name to go ahead and brand ourselves as the trusted place to get your education around medical cannabis. Hopefully we’ll be able to parlé that into a brand image where people will see us as the trusted place to get their medicine [when] we’re able to operate our treatment centers.
What’s the syllabus going to be?
So the syllabus is available for download on the website. We basically teach about the plant from a historical perspective, from a legal perspective, from a botanical perspective, and from a pharmacological perspective—what it will actually mean to the patients and the caregivers who are going to be involved with it. Realistically, the vast majority of students taking our classes perceive it as job training. They want to pick up new skills in a new industry so they can provide a fair life for themselves and their families. We teach them about the career opportunities that they could experience, both independently and as a member of our company—as an employee of our company.
So you'll teach medical marijuana classes while also selling medical marijuana?
Absolutely. Honestly, I think both sides have to be there. I believe that we have a role and a responsibility to be an advocate in the community. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about medical cannabis and what it’s going to mean for everybody involved, so we have to be the institution that brings the facts to bear.
Isn’t advocacy a bit at odds with educating? Education should be impartial; if you're selling it as well as educating people on the subject, surely any negative information about cannabis would affect how much you sell?
I suppose there’s always going to be an amount of bias there, and I’ll be the first to admit that. Everyone approaches a subject with a certain amount of bias, and to be honest you must admit that. So I’m certainly happy to put that on the table. What we try to do to overcome that is, when we're teaching about medical cannabis, we're pointing to third parties—we're pointing to research that’s been done by trusted and independent firms or individuals who are active in the state. So we're relying on the strength of their research and their credibility in terms of explaining what cannabis can do.
Also, there is a portion of our class that's designed to train our next crop of employees. We're going to create a skilled labor force to draw from for our shops that doesn’t exist yet in Florida. There is obviously that ulterior motive, but I see that as a strength.
So it’s a cannabis graduate scheme?
How many campuses are there going to be?
There will be different campuses. Our first location is on the east side of Tampa, and we’ll also be in Orlando and Miami. So we’re going to cover the state by range.
Do you have ambitions to operate nationally?
At this point, our program is designed to address the peculiarities of the model in Florida, and should there be other opportunities we’ll certainly have conversation.
Do you smoke yourself?
I’m personally not a smoker; I’ve never really been a part of that culture. My father has had a series of surgeries that went poorly, and I've seen the power of medical marijuana to relieve pain, to increase appetite, and to increase quality of life. That was what sparked my interest; then I went on to study about the effect it had on a variety of different conditions, and I traveled to different states where it's legal. I've learned from growers, I've learned from doctors, and I've learned from caregivers, and I wanted to take that model to Florida because I believe, truly, that medical marijuana is an inevitability. It’s not a question of "if"; it's a question of "when." I personally believe that to be 2015 in Florida, so we’re creating the infrastructure for our company to take full advantage of being the first mover in the space.
How do students enroll?
It just so happens that, as of this morning, we sold out our last class for March and haven’t had an opportunity yet to load up the classes for April. But basically, people can go to the website, pick their location they want to attend, the class they want to go to, and check it out right there.
Cool. So are you going to be teaching people how to grow?
Yes. We're going to teach them what the best practices are in other states, and we're going to be teaching them about what’s going to happen in Florida in the future. We're obviously not advising anyone to break any laws, state or federal, in that regard. We're completely coming at this from a thought-experiment standpoint. We are raising, for example, peppers and tomato plants with similar nutritional requirements, but we're absolutely going to teach the advanced hydroponic and aeroponic techniques necessary to produce medical-grade marijuana, because there's a big difference. It’s not as easy as putting a seed in the ground.
So how do you vet out the guys who just want to grow better weed for themselves?
I get that question a lot. It makes sense. Everybody’s worried about this “bad actor.” How do you keep the drug dealer from gaining access to this information and using it for bad? My response is this: You can go to Harvard University and you can get an MBA, and guess what? You can do bad things with that. If you look at our economic history over the last decade, you can see that in spades. Nobody is arguing that Harvard shouldn’t have a business program. So, for us, yeah—I understand that some of the information we provide can be used for ill purposes. But our mission is to provide an incredible value for the patient, and we’re not going to let those kinds of considerations stand in our way of delivering that knowledge.
What kind of qualification do you get at the end of the course?
You receive a certificate. Everybody says, you know, "What does the certificate mean?" Well, obviously this is a new industry, and there aren’t centres of accreditation that you can look at that have prestigious histories, but we’re trying to be one of the first, and you do receive a certificate after completing the training, and that certificate allows the student—at the very least—to do business with us at Medical Marijuana Tampa. I believe it will only be a matter of time before others in the medical marijuana space recognize the legitimacy of our certificate. Think about it like going to bartending school—you can go and learn to be a bartender, and you get a little certificate. That’s just from a company that decided to do it, but what it shows employers is that you had the initiative and the wherewithal to take this course, to do the deep dive.