What’s Up, Doc?

The changing face of cannabis in Northeast Florida

Dr. Chidi Uche cuts a distinctive figure. Tailored suit, Italian loafers, monogrammed Ralph Lauren shirt with French cuffs and presidential seal cufflinks. Even his stethoscope is fancy; it’s white with rose gold where you’d normally see stainless steel. His cool demeanor surely inspires confidence among his clients at Timeless Medical Spa, where he specializes in a wide variety of cosmetic and aesthetic treatments.

We met with him at his office on Southside Boulevard. It’s actually his second office (the other one is on University Boulevard), and it hasn’t been open that long. The rapid expansion of his business has been facilitated, in large part, by medical marijuana. Uche, 54, was one of the first local doctors who became certified to prescribe cannabis, back in 2018, and he’s since grown his client base to include more than 4,000 patients, each of whom checks in with him at least once a year, usually much more.

Uche was born in London to Nigerian parents, giving him an internationalist sort of mindset from the very start. “I used to do general medicine,” he said. “I used to see everyone from pediatrics to adults. When I was in London I did internal medicine, then I came over here and did a residency in general medicine because it gives you a broader feel.” He then spent four years as the medical director for Carnival Cruise Lines before moving to Jacksonville in 2007.

Uche’s interest in cannabis began almost by accident. While practicing family medicine, he noticed that many of his patients with anxiety and chronic pain were testing positive for it. After talking with them, he began doing his own research. “That’s when the whole state started opening up,” he said. The arrival of medical marijuna to Florida provided a massive boost to a medical practice that was already thriving and has continued into the pandemic era.

“I did notice immediately that a lot of patients had almost life-changing circumstances once they got started with medical marijuana,” he said. At the time, Uche was one of only a handful of doctors to get certified for this work here. Since then, that number has grown to 93, just in Jacksonville, and 2,541 doctors statewide serving a base of 705,169 patients. This works out to about 278 patients per doctor, which really drives home how strong Uche’s own business is going right now. (The Office of Medical Marijuana Use, or OMMU, keeps exhaustive statistics about the industry from licenses to output, and those numbers are updated weekly.)

Uche first partnered with Surterra, offering his services to people looking to get certified for medical marijuana and then he began working with Trulieve. “It’s all about the ratios and terpenes,” he said. “Just because something works for one patient, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for another.” Some patients may express religious concerns about using cannabis, which he addresses by explaining to them how the science works. “There’s a system that we have in our body called the endocannabinoid system, where we have CBD1 and CBD2 receptors,” he said, “These are receptors in our body that these cannabinoids lock in to, and that manifests these different chemical reactions in our body, whether it’s elevating levels of neurotransmitters, countering hormone imbalances, boosting our immune systems, lymphatics and all that.” As he puts it, why would it be wrong to use this material, if our bodies are already designed to do so?

A frequent complaint about the industry is about the lack of diversity and representation, which is weird, considering the diversity of the client base. Current laws require businesses to be fully-invested in every stage of the process from cultivation to retail and everything in-between, while the actual licenses to participate are highly expensive and tightly-controlled by the state. This system, known as “vertical integration,” does create a sort of soft monopoly involving just a handful of major firms that are all owned and run almost entirely by white men. But, if you go slightly down the chain of command, demographics switch up bigly. 

Anecdotally-speaking, medical marijuana dispensaries often seem to have more female staffers than men with minority representation similar to the population at large. Other states, starting, of course, with California, are seeing a surge in Black and Latinx entrepreneurship in that sector. (See the column about Jacksonville’s own Caron Marcelous, from a couple of months ago.) Women also appear to work predominantly in the marketing and PR operations of the various firms, and that particular investment has paid literal dividends in a state that strictly limits their options. 

Cannabis companies are prohibited from directly advertising in the media in Florida, which is highly irritating to alternative media outlets like ours, which would surely be pulling down ad loot in the millions from Middleburg to Miami Beach, easy-breezy, automatic for the people. Alt-weeklies in other states can draw up to half of their ad revenue from such companies, and it’s certain that many of the papers to go under in the pandemic era might still be in business, had these resources been available to them.

They can’t advertise, but they can certainly promote, which they do using merchandise like t-shirts and trucker caps. The products basically promote themselves, as each company has their own unique aesthetic, as well as proprietary equipment like vape cartridges and strains. It certainly helps to cultivate relationships, as surely as they cultivate cannabis. Uche has sent thousands of patients to their dispensaries, so the revenue generated by just this one connection probably runs deep into six figures, at least.

Folio staff got to tour the new Trulieve facility alongside Uche, who’s been working closely with them from almost day one. Located at 8355 Baymeadows Road, this is Trulieve’s seventh location in Jacksonville and 114th across Florida, which is more than the next two firms combined. (For context, there are over 7,000 dispensaries in the U.S.) Those 133 locations sold a combined 93,985,557 milligrams of THC in the first week of April, alone. Oddly enough, there were exactly 416 dispensaries in Florida, as of the April 8 update. As current trends go, we will probably hit 420 right around 4/20, if not the week before.

Trulieve has about 7,000 employees, as of 2021. Their stock price currently hovers just above $20, more than any other such company by a solid margin. Dozens and dozens of cannabis stocks are publicly traded on exchanges around the world, led by the United States and Canada. The top five traded firms have a combined market capitalization exceeding $20 billion, Trulieve is a very close second, with a $4.84 billion cap, no cap. In first place ($4.93 billion) is Curaleaf, which is also heavily invested in Northeast Florida. Competition is super-fierce; dispensaries now dot the landscape like hedcuts in the Wall Street Journal. (Hello, Noli!)

Trulieve’s newest location will be hosting the company’s 420 party on Wednesday, April 20, which includes a DJ, refreshments and promotional items galore. Most importantly, that day sees the culmination of their “4.20 For All” NFT project, which was launched on April 1, exactly 420 hours before 4/20. Each of the 14 pieces depicts a person’s hand, holding a different type of cannabis product. It shows how the culture has spread to encompass all types of demographics, with the diversity of the product line reflecting the diversity of the communities they serve.

One hundred percent of the proceeds will benefit Last Prisoner Project, a non-profit organization that works to help expunge the criminal records of citizens with nonviolent pot possession convictions. As the first cannabis company to step formally into the metaverse, it’s uncharted territory, but success is certain. As said, this isn’t technically “advertising,” in the strictest sense of the word, but it is a highly potent promotional tool, one that carries the added benefit of helping people, and addressing the themes of civil liberties, systemic racism and economic disparity.

The 420 event at Trulieve is just one of several events scheduled for that day. One of the bigger deals takes place at Shantytown Pub, an iconic Springfield nightspot cultivating quirky creatives for well over a decade. That continues on 4/20 with Dillon Vaughan Maurer, a pillar of the underground rap scene in Atlanta and a man with long-standing connections to the River City, most notably through his collaboration with the late great Paten Locke. The two gruff gourmands, who founded the Full Plate record label in 2013, have been vocal advocates for cannabis, which featured prominently across the hundreds of tracks they’ve released over the years, including those on Americancer, Locke’s first posthumous album, as well as Dillon’s Gardenstrumentals 2 both of which will be available on vinyl at the show.

Dispensaries are pretty meticulous about who gets to work there, for several reasons. At this still formative stage of the industry, companies are keen to avoid any negative publicity that could give credence to the kind of skepticism that has helped keep recreational marijuana off the state ballot, for the second electoral cycle in a row. Employees are thus vetted thoroughly.

Also, it’s a lot of information to keep track of. Trulieve has over 250 individual product lines, denoted by stock-keeping units (SKU), the barcodes on the back of every package, and their competitors have as many, or more. In addition, new products debut regularly—new strains, new substrates, totally new methods of delivery. 

Dispensary employees have to know everything about what their company is selling, as well as what the competition is doing, and then have automatic recall of that information for hundreds of individual customers per day, all of whom have their own unique and specific needs. Imagine being a librarian, before computers existed. It can be a challenge for even the most Type A employee, but turnover in the industry stays fairly low because, frankly, it’s a great job if you have the aptitude and motivation.

 

From this journalist’s perspective, it takes real effort to keep up with innovations in that industry, and I’m just writing about it. There are a near-infinite array of books about cannabis, news articles, whole specialty publications, websites, message-boards, reddit threads, YouTube channels, podcasts, social media accounts. Every major social media platform developed to date has been used to cultivate cannabis culture, in its own special way, which really helps delineate the particular qualities of each platform.

There are also dozens of specific cannabis-related smartphone apps that allow people to find doctors and dispensaries, product reviews, mail-order and delivery options, and just plain fellowship. My favorite is WeedMaps, but they all have great names: Leafly, GrowBuddy, Hempire, MassRoot, PotBot, Wiz Khalifa’s Weed Farm, Trym. We also still have Erowid.com, which is without question the greatest drug-related website that has ever existed.

But ultimately the bulk of business gets done via word-of-mouth, and that is the crucial role that folks like Dr. Uche are playing in the group of Florida’s cannabis industry. It’s been quite the journey, already, and he’s just getting started.

 

About Shelton Hull

april, 2022

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