Tallahassee Insiders Take Aim At Medical Marijuana License
By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida // August 3, 2015
TALLAHASSE, FLORIDA – Influential Tallahassee insiders – and a former lawmaker who is the grandson of one of Florida’s most-renowned citrus barons – have banded together with the owner of an abortion clinic to get in on the ground floor of the state’s burgeoning medical-marijuana industry.
Tree King-Tree Farms, located in Quincy, disclosed its team of lobbyists, lawyers, investors and consultants in an application for one of five, highly sought-after “dispensing organization” licenses to grow, process and dispense a type of non-euphoric medical marijuana authorized last year by the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott.
The “Northwest Compassionate Care” team, comprised of Tree King and others, includes powerful Tallahassee movers and shakers.
But the woman who assembled the coalition — a onetime Republican National Committee staffer — said she was motivated to enter the arena for personal, not political or financial, reasons.
“I am your blue-collar worker,” Shannon Rosier, a forensic accountant, told The News Service of Florida on Thursday.
One backer listed on the 241-page application — among the shortest of the 28 applications received by the Department of Health earlier this month — is DeVoe Moore, a wealthy Tallahassee businessman who has a center named after him at Florida State University.
Another investor is former legislator Baxter Troutman, a grandson of the late citrus magnate Ben Hill Griffin Jr., for whom the University of Florida football stadium is named.
The applicant’s legal adviser is Sam Ard, a veteran Tallahassee lobbyist and lawyer with a focus on agriculture.
Also with a small share in the operation is Louis Rotundo, a lobbyist who represents the Florida Medical Cannabis Association and has been an active participant in the development of the law and the rules governing the low-THC marijuana industry.
The application lists powerful lobbyist Billy Rubin, a close ally of the governor, as its “governmental affairs” consultant.
But Rubin, who represents a separate client seeking a license in the same Northwest region of the state, denied having anything to do with the Tree King consortium.
“We are not sure how this was listed in error, but it is important to rectify the situation,” Rubin’s lawyer said in a letter sent Monday to health regulators.
Rosier blamed the inclusion of Rubin in the application on a scramble to get the forms in before a 5 p.m. deadline on July 8. The group’s application was time-stamped at 4:57 p.m.
Rosier said she assembled the team largely through her connections as a girls’ basketball and softball coach in Tallahassee. For more than a decade, Rosier has volunteered as a coach for the YMCA and Tallahassee youth programs. She takes pride in the number of players for whom she has helped secure scholarships.
Rosier, who owns an accounting firm catering to small businesses in Tallahassee, said she doesn’t consider herself as partisan. During her stint at the RNC from 2003 to 2008, she worked as accountant who specialized in compliance, payroll and software management.
The mother of four said she learned of low-THC cannabis as a form of treatment after a softball player suffered her first seizure on the field.
“It was a very dramatic event,” said Rosier, known as “Coach Shannon” throughout Tallahassee. “That’s how our journey began.”
Her former player suffered daily seizures — despite numerous prescription drugs, including one with the potential of damaging her liver, with no effect — until trying low-THC oil in California, Rosier said. After Scott signed the low-THC bill into law last spring, Rosier launched the effort to get a license to bring the life-saving product to suffering children like her former player.
“It’s just simple compassion of knowing these kids were on these drugs that were killing them. That’s why I began this pursuit,” she said.
“I wanted to walk into this with the compliance component, which is what I do. I want to make sure that we establish this industry and build it up in Florida, rather than win the license and sell it to an outsider.”
Under the 2014 law, only nurseries that have been in business for at least 30 years and grow a minimum of 400,000 plants are eligible to apply for one of the five licenses.
Rosier ended up buying 75 percent of Tree King, a tree farm originally based in New Port Ritchey and which met the eligibility requirements. The other owners include the nursery’s original owner, Gerrard L’Heureaux; L’Heureaux’s attorney, Robert Buck; and Rotundo. The NW Group, affiliated with the operation, is owned by Troutman; Rosier; and Stephen Duncan, the applicant’s medical director and an obstetrician/gynecologist who owns North Florida Women’s Services, an abortion clinic in Tallahassee. Duncan also has been the medical director of a compounding pharmacy for more than five years.
The NW Group is linked with Be Mindful, a Colorado-based organization that has been growing medical marijuana for at least five years and also operates four dispensaries in the western state. The company will receive a percentage of the gross sales of the operation, if the license is granted.
Rosier bought a warehouse in Quincy, not far from Tallahassee, with the intent of basing the operation in the Northwest region after plans to join with a different nursery — Oglesby Nursery — fell through. Oglesby’s owner, Gary Hennen, is also working with Rosier’s team.
Rosier plans to open dispensaries in Pensacola, Panama City and Tallahassee if she receives a license. The application says the product would be delivered to the dispensaries in an armored vehicle.
When asked about selecting the owner of an abortion clinic as the group’s medical director, Rosier said she “took it with a grain of salt” in light of Duncan’s resume, which includes a background in chemistry, although she “knew (abortion) was controversial in itself.” The application lists two other doctors as deputy medical directors. Duncan also owns The Men’s Center of North Florida, which specializes in anti-aging treatments.
“I need him to be part of my team because education is the key,” Rosier said.
“I appreciate the fact that he brings a lot of expertise to the table. … He’s imperative to the marketing, the education that’s needed for these doctors to move forward so that these patients can get what they need in Florida. Why not use a doctor that has as much expertise as he has?”
Florida doctors were supposed to begin ordering low-THC treatments for their patients on Jan. 1, but the 2014 law has been mired in legal challenges. Health department officials have 90 days to select the five licensees, who will then have 120 days to begin delivering the product to eligible patients. Under the law, doctors can order the treatment for patients with chronic muscle spasms or cancer.
About 100 nurseries were eligible to apply for the licenses, and the owners have been inundated by out-of-state pot growers, investors and others trying to cash in on the “green rush” in the Sunshine State.
Many are eager to establish a presence early on with the hope that voters will approve a constitutional amendment that would legalize “traditional” marijuana — with higher THC levels — next year.
The Supreme Court has not yet approved the proposed constitutional amendment for the 2016 ballot, and voters narrowly rejected a similar initiative last year.
The Northwest Compassionate Care team is one of many with ties to influential lobbyists, lawyers and investors from inside and outside of Florida. But some of the others may not have been as forthright identifying who is participating in the endeavors. The health department only required applicants to reveal the names of owners and managers of the operations.
“There’s a lot of applications and a lot of names I hear are floating in them. And that’s the question. If they’re not there, I’m going to be very interested to know how and why they’re not there,” Rotundo said.
Rotundo said the high-profile names on the Tree King application shouldn’t work against the group.
“The reality is this, through this whole process the issue has been who’s involved with these licenses. Do I know them? Do they have good backgrounds? Are they substantial citizens of the state of Florida? Because so many of the people who were working on this legislation were afraid of a bunch of outsiders coming into this process and that you wouldn’t know who they were,” he said.
“When you look at something like several of these applications, which I think will have similar partnerships or team arrangements, what you’re looking for is folks that have been here in Florida for a long time. They have established reputations. I think that’s a good thing. It gives the state some level of comfort of who they’re dealing with.”