Opening day at Pensacola's first medical marijuana dispensary had a very "business as usual" vibe.
Employees in crisp, white polo shirts leaned over wood grain counters and glass display cases to review paperwork and answer customers' questions.
About two dozen customers waited patiently in a line that stretched just outside the lobby into a plain white hallway, passing time by chitchatting and watching a promotional video looping on a wall-mounted TV.
Trulieve opened the doors of its newest medical marijuana dispensary on Wednesday morning at 3119 North Davis Highway. The company operates three other dispensaries in Florida — in Tallahassee, Tampa and Clearwater — and is working to spread the word that the medical cannabis industry is professional, reputable and beneficial to clients and communities.
Kim Rivers, Trulieve's CEO, fielded questions and gave tours of the building during the grand opening.
A space in the building can accommodate client support groups and educational workshops for local physicians, Rivers said. She said seeing the dispensary first-hand would allay people's negative preconceptions and misgivings.
"That's our hope in having physical locations," Rivers said. "We want people to understand we are one of their neighbors, and the community is utilizing and benefiting from our services."
Marijuana is illegal at the federal level, but Florida voters approved an amendment last year that allows patients with cancer, AIDS, Parkinson's disease and certain other illnesses to purchase cannabis if they have doctor approval and are added to a state marijuana-use registry.
Although the measure was approved in November, dispensaries have been slow to get off the ground because legislators are still shaping regulations for Florida's burgeoning medical marijuana industry. Policies in practice or discussion include capping the number of licensed marijuana dispensers based on the size of the state's patient registry; banning smoking, "vaping" or cooking marijuana into edible ingredients; and current a 90-day waiting period before a doctor could recommend cannabis for a new patient.
Mark Patten, who traveled from Milton for the dispensary's opening, said the Legislature had done too much already to slow down the process.
When Patten was diagnosed with cancer, doctors told him he had three to five years to live. Now, he said, it's been seven years since he got the news.
Though his battle with cancer has gone better than expected, Patten said he suffers from nerve damage in his back and chronic pain. He was prescribed painkillers from the powerful and addictive opioid family and said he was afraid of getting hooked.
"We wanted to get involved (with medical marijuana treatment options) immediately, because it's a lot safer than opiates," Patten said of himself and his caregiver, Jane Cockerham. "It's something that relieves pain without being habit forming ... . I've been on opiates so long, they weren't working. I knew it was time for a change."
After Patten and Cockerham filled out their paperwork in Trulieve's lobby, they were led back to the dispensary, where staff outlined proper dosages and the different benefits of cannabis delivery methods like capsules, vaporizers, tinctures and oils.
Rivers said dispensary staff were hired and trained locally and the dispensary's goal was to integrate into and be an asset in the community.
"Pensacola's been great so far, and we've gotten an overwhelmingly positive response," Rivers said.