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Florida's marijuana law: entrepreneurs are waiting to exhale

By Barbara Liston

TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - Retired real estate agent Wanda Hurt, 58, is learning how to grow peppers and tomatoes, but when she graduates from Florida's own version of Pot U she'll be equipped to start her own medical marijuana business.

Hurt is one of hundreds of would-be pot producers paying $500 to learn the business after Florida last week joined the march of 22 states permitting limited marijuana use.

"I want to be part of the revolution," said Hurt, from Fort Myers.

The school, officially called Medical Marijuana Tampa, is one of several dozen new Florida businesses hoping to cash in on the cannabis crop.

The Florida legislature on Friday passed a bill to legalize Charlotte's Web, a noneuphoric strain of marijuana commonly believed to reduce epileptic seizures. Governor Rick Scott has said he will sign the measure into law when it reaches his desk.

A more expansive medical marijuana referendum is up for a vote in November, and polls show overwhelming public support.

Forward-looking entrepreneurs have spent cash and prepared for this day in a way unseen in other states, industry observers say. Speculative investment in Florida has been so intense that Marijuana Business Daily, a leading online marijuana-focused newspaper, likened it to a gold rush.

"It's phenomenal. We haven't seen anything quite like this where so many businesses are starting before a state even passes a medical marijuana law," said editor Chris Walsh.

Jeremy Bufford, a 33-year-old information technology consultant who launched the Tampa school in January, estimates the potential early market in Florida at 100,000 users and $6.5 million a week, based on results in California. The state operates under parameters similar to those proposed on Florida's November referendum, he said.

Many newly registered marijuana companies are placeholders for potential business. Marijuana Account Corp was created March 19 by Shai Mashiach, a 34-year-old Realtor in Fort Lauderdale, who has yet to settle on his niche.

"Our plan is to be involved in any which way," Mashiach said.

Others are making bigger plays. Cannabis-Rx (CANNA) of Scottsdale, Arizona, bought nine acres and three buildings in Sarasota for $1.3 million that it now advertises as "an ideal location for a licensed grow facility and/or distribution center."

In Johnstown, Ohio, Andy Joseph manufactures machines that extract cannabis oil from marijuana plants and cost $30,000 to $100,000 each. His company, Apeks Super Critical Systems, has already sold two in Florida, something he did not see in other states in advance of marijuana laws.

The Tampa students get to design their own customized indoor grow space - from a closet to a larger basement - and practice on tomato and pepper plants, learning formulas for how many plants fit in how much space and how much light they need. Florida is mostly too hot and humid for outdoor growing, the school teaches.

Modeled on instruction in other successful marijuana schools, such as Oaksterdam University in Oakland, California, classes take place in an office suite on the fifth floor of a nondescript building in Tampa behind an unmarked door.

Carlos Hermida, professor of cannabis and the 2012 valedictorian at Oaksterdam who also holds a masters in business from Nova University, opens the class with a warning. "You are under a certain amount of scrutiny for taking this class. Do not be surprised if there is a police officer in this class," he tells the students, adding that the school will call police if anyone brings illegal drugs on campus.

For the time being, Florida's new law will severely limit marijuana sales, keeping them well below those in Colorado and California where recreational marijuana has been legalized.

Florida is estimated to have 125,000 epilepsy sufferers. But experts say Charlotte's Web is of only limited medical use and will not help in the treatment of cancer patients, those suffering from ALS, known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, or veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

That's because Charlotte's Web is specially cultivated to be low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the element that gets users high.

The Florida bill also limits distribution to a handful of dispensaries operated by established nursery owners who have been in business for at least 30 years.

Furthermore, cannabis has yet to be declared legal by the federal government, prompting pushback from municipalities in Colorado and California that have enacted bans, moratoria and strict zoning ordinances, citing fears of federal prosecution.

Be patient and sensible is something Bufford preaches to the small army of potentially 300 growers who he said have attended at least part of his program, which includes statewide weekend seminars and online classes.

"I hope they're all growing some fantastic tomatoes," Bufford said, "and when it's legal to switch, they will make that change."

(Editing by David Adams and Prudence Crowther)

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