Medicinal pot farm hidden in Hillsborough neighborhood

Five approved dispensing organizations serve different regions in Florida. Alpha Surterra in Hillsborough County is the designated dispensary for the Southwest Region.

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — You could drive past the location a million times and never know it’s there. It’s nondescript and blends in with the landscape. The building is small and non-threatening. What’s truly odd about the site is that it is within a residential neighborhood.

But, maybe that was the intention all along with this state-sanctioned grow house, where low-grade THC is being cultivated for terminally ill patients.

The address for the elusive pot farm in Hillsborough County is so secretly guarded, you’ll never find it within the documents where it should be listed on the Florida Department of Health website.

Instead, you’ll find page after page of redacted information. In fact, if you seek out the application for the grower, entire portions of the paperwork are completely protected, blacked-out online. The only address you’ll find is the nursery partnering with Surterra Therapeutics in this venture, which is Alpha Foliage, located in Homestead.

So, why is there so much secrecy surrounding this grow house?

That’s what a Bay Area mother of three wanted to know. If it’s a legal, she asked, where was the transparency? With Florida’s public records laws, applications such as this, she maintains, should be open for the public to view. Since this was a bill signed by the governor allowing this particular marijuana to be grown, why were the details kept hidden?

Ellen Snelling and her daughter. Family photo
Ellen Snelling and her daughter. Family photo

She wanted to know the answer, not because she wished to broadcast the location or put anyone at risk, she told us. She simply wanted to be aware and be an informed citizen. When Ellen Snelling couldn’t get any answers, she called 8 on Your Side for help.

We began a long, drawn-out, arduous process trying to find the location ourselves. It began with multiple phone calls to the company, where we were told repeatedly that releasing this data would put the company’s safety at risk.

Not satisfied with that answer, we continued our quest to solve this marijuana mystery. We spent days doing research, hours making phone calls, endless searches through documents and found still nothing.

But, the leads we did procure through our investigation turned out to be credible. When we finally began our trek across Hillsborough County, it became a trip we’ll never forget. We went to numerous businesses, abandoned factories and legitimate farms.

Our search took us through Tampa, Temple Terrace, Apollo Beach, Wimauma and Ruskin. By the time we reached our final location, we were a little surprised by what we found. The tiny white building couldn’t possibly be it, we thought. It seemed too small and innocuous. But, if you’re looking to conceal something, sometimes it’s best to hide in plain sight. Some neighbors had no idea what it was. Others began to figure it out when multiple TECO trucks showed up en masse to power the little, but mighty hydroponic equipment.

The small-scale, but fully functional operation that has been in existence since February, also happens to have noticeable pieces of equipment on the side of the building, ones that would indicate hydroponics of some kind are inside.

In addition, there is a barbed wire fence around the property with a double gate. And, when we approached the gate, a man armed with a gun came to meet us, instructing us to get off the property immediately. That’s when we noticed the logo on his shirt, Surterra Therapeutics.

This was the location.

Some people who work in the area have also figured it out. One young woman at a nearby business smiled and told us, “Well, we figured it out when they began moving in. Then, when the street flooded, we knew they were growing something. When I asked them what they were growing, they told us annuals. I don’t know what kind of annuals need to be protected by a barbed wire fence!”

Surterra Therapeutics cites safety and security of its staff and the location as a reason for not providing an exact address. Other grow house endeavors around the country, the spokesperson noted, have been receiving threats.

So, the company originally declined to provide any information about the geographical location of the site. However, when 8 on Your Side discovered the grow house, the company did confirm that this was it.

Snelling explained to us that her intentions in trying to locate the pot farm were based on personal struggles and heartache. The raw emotion, she says, come from wanting to protect others. Her eyes well with tears as she recalls the unforgettable moment in her past where she nearly lost her daughter to addiction.

Years ago, Snelling witnessed a downward spiral in her once-vibrant teenager, a spiral that was brought on by drug use. “It is deeply personal for me. This is about my daughter,” Snelling told WFLA. “And, her problems began with marijuana.”

Snelling’s daughter was a straight-A student, cheerleader and a volunteer at church.

“I saw the change in her. Her behavior, her friends. Her grades slipped, she dropped out of cheerleading. She began hanging out with the wrong crowd. I didn’t recognize who she was anymore. Then, she would be gone for days. I would wait night after night for that phone call. I was afraid she might not be alive. It was chaos for our family. I saw her behavior change when she started smoking pot. Then, she moved on to cocaine.”

Her daughter was eventually arrested and ended up in juvenile court, which was the “best thing for her,” says Snelling. Fortunately, the story has a good outcome – Snelling’s daughter made it out alive.

So, when the Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance activist heard that pot was being cultivated legally at a state-sanctioned grow house not far from her Temple Terrace home, she was shocked and angry.

“It was like they snuck this in without anyone knowing. And, I wanted to know more about it. But, I couldn’t find information anywhere,” she told us. “I just want to know where the grow house is, and so do other parents.”

Snelling has spent days, nights and weekends trying to find the address of the cultivation site. However, the documents online are heavily redacted.

“I will do almost anything to find out where this is. I’ve even gone driving up and down U.S. Highway 41,” she explained.

After calling leaders with the city, county and state, including the governor’s office, the mother of three felt frustrated. No one would answer her questions. So, she called 8 on Your Side. “I am hoping you can help me get some answers,” she told us. And we did. But, it was not an easy or transparent process.

The company that currently runs the grow house in Hillsborough County is Surterra Therapeutics, in partnership with Alpha Foliage out of Homestead.

When it comes to the cultivation of this low-grade THC strain, the state is divided into five geographical regions. The Tampa Bay Area is considered the Southwest region, which includes rural Hillsborough County. The location has been in existence since February of 2016 with the intent to provide medical marijuana sometime in June of 2016.

The requirements for Florida’s pot cultivation farms are strict, heavily regulated and the list of prerequisites is long. For instance, in order to have been considered for the cultivation site, the nursery would’ve had to have met the requirements of being in business for more than 30 years. No “start-up” operations are allowed.

Plants of Ruskin is one-such operation which paid $60,000 to apply for a license to grow. It took six months of paperwork and the company was denied. They are currently fighting to reverse the application denial. State leaders in favor of this initiative explained to WFLA that the rules to cultivate would require and ensure that these were well-established nurseries.

There are more rules when it comes to Florida’s medicinal marijuana program. Terminally ill patients seeking medical marijuana must have at the very minimum, a 3-month relationship with their doctor to even be considered for a pot prescription. Currently, there are less than 100 doctors in the entire state who have signed up to be a part of this endeavor. Their names, addresses, and locations are provided on the website from the Florida Department of Health-Office of Compassionate Use.  Find Florida doctors approved to order medicinal marijuana & learn more about the program.

There are doctors from Tampa Bay on the list, including physicians in Clearwater, Wesley Chapel and Brooksville to name a few. Those doctors must also complete a course in order to prescribe the medical marijuana. It is only after these requirements are met that the terminally ill patient may then conduct business at the dispensary in the USF-area on Fowler Avenue at the Surterra Wellness Center, which has already obtained its business license, but is not yet in operation as of the writing of this article.

 

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