9 Investigates: Florida could mirror Canada's system if pot legalized

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ORLANDO, Fla. —

As Florida voters head to the polls in November to consider candidates for governor and other elected positions, they’ll also be asked to vote yes or no on Amendment 2, one of the most talked about and debated statewide ballot initiatives in recent memory.

If 60 percent of Florida voters say yes, medical marijuana would then be legal in the Sunshine State. Early polling suggests it will pass.

With that in mind, Channel  9's Greg Warmoth recently traveled to Ottawa, Canada, where medical marijuana is legal, to find out more about the business side of legalized pot production and distribution.

What Warmoth found was that Canada’s legalized system was chaotic in the early years, but since then that country has put in place strict controls that could be mirrored in Florida.

When marijuana as a medicine became legal 13 years ago in Canada, licensed users actually could grow and sell their own weed. On April 1 of this year, however, "Health Canada" put new rules in place. And many believe that Canada’s system could be the model for places like Florida that are considering legalization.

And perhaps the most visible example of that model, for now, can be found in Smiths Falls, Ontario. Currently, the town has a population of about 9,000 residents. But 400,000 tourists used to visit each year. Most would make a stop at the Hershey chocolate factory, but those days ended when that plant  closed six years ago. 

“Until recently, it still smelled like chocolate in the plant,” said Chuck Rifici, the CEO of Tweed Marijuana Inc. “That smell has now been replaced by another scent.”

 “And the smell here, you can smell the marijuana," said Warmoth during his recent visit to the plant.

In just one grow room that Warmoth and his cameraman toured, the value of the marijuana was placed at about $250,000.

Tweed Marijuana Inc., which is publicly traded on the Canadian stock exchange, was granted one of only 13 licenses under "Health Canada's" new tougher regulations. An initial investment of $28 million in cash has led to an evaluation of $118 million.

Tweed only opened for business on April 1.

“Are you getting rich off this?” Warmoth asked Rifici. 

“I'd say no,” Rifici responded. “I own a lot of stock and we are a publicly traded company and that's public information, but I'm not complaining.”

The maximum 30-room capacity of the facility can produce up to 33,000 pound annually.

Plant operators said once all 30 rooms are built out they expect to be able to generate $100 million in revenue each year.

In October, when Warmoth traveled to California, where medical marijuana is also legal, he found marijuana dispensaries on virtually every corner he looked. But in Smiths Falls, the only place selling plants downtown was a florist’s shop. It’s a sign of how heavily regulated the industry has become.

Residents Warmoth spoke with don't seem bothered by Tweed’s business startup.

“Well, it’s better than nothing,” said resident Gary Barrie. “It’s better than having the plant empty. It’s been empty for years.”

Smiths Falls’ mayor, Dennis Staples, said he's heard three complaints about Tweed and after speaking to those folks, they changed their minds and became Tweed supporters.

“We are thrilled that they are here and they are responding to a need in the marketplace for a medical reason,” Staples told Warmoth.  

Tweed Inc. will soon expand from 35 to 100 workers. Ryan Douglas is the operation’s master grower.

“The way things are headed here in Canada and the U.S., I think there is a very bright future for anyone who is an experienced commercial grower of plants,” Douglas said.

Under Canada’s new laws, there is no more home grown pot. It's now set up like Amazon with registration and distribution managed through corporate websites, like the one Tweed operates. The product is then shipped in a non-descript package by a secure carrier.

“I think Canada has a real chance to be the leader in this industry after the way they set up this framework,” Rifici said.

To put the scale of Tweed’s operation in perspective, by the end of this year, the plant will have churned out enough marijuana to make 2 million joints.

Right now, we don't know how Florida would set up its licensing and distribution framework if Amendment 2 passes.

And the folks at Tweed told Warmoth that despite Florida’s favorable climate, outdoors would not be the best place to grow medical grade marijuana due to concerns about our high humidity and mold growing on the plants.