Finding a doctor on the Treasure or Space coast to recommend medical marijuana is easy. Finding a local dispensary to fill the order is impossible.
There are 75 doctors across Brevard, Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties authorized by the state Office of Medical Marijuana to recommend medical marijuana to their patients as a treatment for glaucoma, pain management, anxiety and other issues.
Yet there are no dispensaries between Palm Beach County on the south and Volusia County on the north, despite a voter-approved 2016 constitutional amendment legalizing the use of medical marijuana for patients with illnesses such as cancer, Crohn's disease, epilepsy or glaucoma.
While there is hope — dispensaries in Vero Beach and Port St. Lucie could be months away from opening — lack of local access to a dispensary is a problem, say doctors who have received state certification to recommend medical marijuana to their patients.
For older or frail patients, unable to drive one or two hours to a dispensary, "it makes it a little more cumbersome for people who are already challenged," said Dr. Melissa Dean, an internal medicine practitioner in Vero Beach authorized to order marijuana.
Having a local dispensary lets patients see the products and talk with someone in person instead of consulting with someone by phone, Dean said.
"It's always better to have 1-to-1 contact with someone," Dean said. "There's so many different varieties (of products), it takes education from my office, and education from the dispensary."
Many patients are unfamiliar with the products and need to see what is available, and how much they need, doctors said.
"They don't know about marijuana. They don't know about vaping. They would like to be able to go look and touch and feel," said anesthesiologist Dr. Kim Zipper, of Melbourne, who is approved to order medical marijuana.
Some of Zipper's patients ordered by phone and ended up buying more than they needed, she said.
Delivery of products sometimes takes days, said Dr. Marcus Malone, who practices physical medicine and rehabilitation in Vero Beach and is approved by the state.
"(At a local dispensary,) they can choose whatever they want, and they can get it immediately," Malone said.
Some cities and counties have outright banned dispensaries, as permitted by state law. The state has implemented a 25-store statewide cap for each company approved to distribute medical marijuana. Dispensary locations are based by region and population.
Alachua-based Liberty Health Services applied Feb. 14 to open a Port St. Lucie dispensary at a shopping center at 10941 U.S. 1, adjacent to the Walmart Supercenter, said senior planner Bridget Kean. The application is under review before building permits can be issued, she said.
Tallashassee-based Trulieve, which operates 13 dispensaries in Florida, is renovating a building on Commerce Avenue in Vero Beach and working through required permitting, said spokeswoman Victoria Walker.
Trulieve had considered a location near the Savanna Club in St. Lucie County, but in December told county officials it was delaying that decision. Trulieve officials have not said whether they are considering another location in St. Lucie County.
Vero Beach approved Trulieve's location last year, but has since banned all future dispensaries. So has Indian River County. Dispensaries are allowed in Port St. Lucie, St. Lucie County, Palm Bay, Rockledge, Satellite Beach and Titusville. Brevard County is ending its ban on dispensaries this month.
But Vero Beach ophthalmologist Dr. Val Zudans, a Vero Beach city councilman who is state-authorized to recommend medical marijuana, said he would prefer his patients get it through home delivery. Zudans says he has no plans to recommend medical marijuana to patients because he prefers other glaucoma treatments.
"In some ways, that's a better system. It's all secure, they show up at your house." Zudans said.