Broward County

Healing or hustle? Medical marijuana clinics come to South Florida

Maybe you’ve seen them on Lincoln Road and Biscayne Boulevard, or did a double-take the first time you drove past one on Old Dixie Highway.

With names like 420 Miami Doctor and Doc MJ, clinics that specialize in medical marijuana diagnoses are opening in strip malls and office buildings across South Florida. More than a half-dozen chains — including one where patients can also receive an INS physical — have popped up from Kendall to Pompano Beach.

Arriving as Florida’s health department and board of medicine continue to work out the ground rules of the industry, cannabis clinics are filling a void in an unsettled market. They come touting doctors and staff who specialize in a convoluted field at a time when thousands are trying to find out if they qualify.

But in a region that only a few years ago was the pill mill capital of the world, the optics aren’t great. Already there are stories about predatory offices and clinics that act more like certification factories than medical practitioners, leading the doctors and clinic owners themselves to urge patients to research the options before they visit.

“There are good actors and bad actors. Unfortunately, with the recent forward progress [of medical marijuana] in the state, there have been a lot of nefarious practices that have popped up. We call them parasites,” said Pat DeLuca, executive director of Compassionate Cannabis Clinic near Sarasota. “And there are people operating within the space that don’t deserve to be.”

Since Florida first authorized an extremely limited medical marijuana system in 2014, more than 30,000 patients have seen doctors from an array of fields in order to become certified. But it wasn’t until voters amended the constitution in November to expand cannabis access — leading to conservative estimates of a statewide patient base of 500,000 — that clinics truly began to open in numbers.

While any licensed physician can become trained and qualified to recommend marijuana, these clinics offer a specialized service. Often, their physicians review a patient’s existing medical records to determine whether the client qualifies for medical marijuana treatment under Florida law. Typically, the experience is quick and costs between $200 and $300 inclusive of the certification and follow-up visits.

Cannabis products are not offered or sold by the clinics.

DeLuca, whose office conducts a physical during a patient’s first visit, says clients can have a lot to gain from seeing a practice that exclusively caters to a cannabis clientele. For one, medical cannabis is different from other types of medications in that the use of the product — most often a vaporizor or orally consumed liquid — has to be tailored over a process of weeks to each individual.

The field also comes with a rigamarole of state regulations that can confuse patients and physicians and make getting access to medical marijuana far more difficult than picking up the typical pharmacy prescription. Ben Pollara, the political consultant who ran the campaign to force the expansion of medical marijuana through a constitutional amendment, believes marijuana clinics are overall serving a necessary function in the market while the bulk of doctors wait for more certainty from the state and federal government.

But not all cannabis clinics are created equal. DeLuca says his staff helps about five patients each week who were “burned” by other marijuana clinics. Some dabble in illegal fee-splitting, he said, where brokers push patients to physicians in exchange for a cut of the service fee.

“When we first started [in January] I would routinely get two or three phone calls a week from a marketer trying to sell me patient lists,” DeLuca said.

Some owners say their motivation to open a chain began with their own negative experience as a patient.

“These clinics want to take your money. They don’t really care,” said Cathy Paget, who founded GE Health in Oakland Park in April after she says she was ripped off at an office off U.S. 441. “I felt like I was in a card mill and nobody wanted to take care of me.”

As a patient herself, Paget says she focuses on educating her clients and helping them understand the system and the medication.

Chains like Doc MJ, Tetra Health Care and Green Health carry the largest presence across the state and are widely reviewed, but local, independent offices exist as well. In Coral Gables, patients heading to the 420 Miami Doctor office on Southwest Eighth Street arrive at CJ Medical Research PA and JC Cosmetic Surgery, where physician Jose Suarez is licensed by the state to recommend medical marijuana as a treatment. Patients heading to the chain’s West Miami office will find an empty, locked office and a sign pointing them to the Gables clinic.

At the 420 office, where patients can also receive immigration exams and a doctor’s letter of support for an emotional service animal, a woman who answered the phone said no one was interested in discussing the practice.

In Fort Lauderdale, Sun Valley Certification Clinics, which opened Aug. 11 off Davie Boulevard, business has been slow. Only five patients visited in the first week and a half. But staff physician Tommy Louisville said it’s better than the clinic where he worked previously, where he said the model was quantity not quality.

One of the first four patients he treated at his new job was a 2-year-old girl who, he says, had received an inaccurate dosing recommendation from a different cannabis clinic. The girl, as a pediatric patient, was seen for free.

Louisville expects business to pick up as marketing begins, but says “I feel a lot better about what I’m doing here.”

Marijuana clinics are ubiquitous in any state where marijuana has been legalized for medicinal use. Sun Valley was founded in Arizona by Dustin Klein, a patient who launched his own franchise after a bad experience at a competitor’s office. Tracilea Young, founder of the California-based walk-in Tetra Health Care chain now spreading through Central Florida, has a similar story.

Of course, none of these owners and doctors is against cannabis clinics: It’s their business. They just warn patients to do their homework before deciding which office to visit.

Pollara, the political consultant, thinks most options are likely to work to the patient’s benefit.

“It’s tough to say that these guys are just purely craven and profit-driven because there’s just not a whole lot of profit in this [market] right now. You can’t do this in any real way without being a little bit of a true-believer,” he said. “It’s the nature of the business and industry. You’re putting yourself at legal and financial risk, and there’s not a whole huge customer base right now. There’s better ways to be greedy than opening up a chain of marijuana offices.”