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Christian Bax quits as state’s top medical marijuana regulator

Christian Bax, director of Florida’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use (OMMU), has stepped down after a controversial three-year tenure that frustrated patients, angered lawmakers, and witnessed an explosion in litigation.

His resignation is effective Aug. 10. Deputy director Courtney Coppola will serve as interim director, Department of Health spokesman Devin Galleta said Friday.

Bax’s resignation letter, released later Friday (see below), did not reveal his future plans.

News of Bax’s departure stoked an angry denunciation from Tampa strip club owner Joe Redner. In April, he won a court battle, only to be appealed by the state, allowing him to grow and make juice of his own marijuana to keep his lung cancer in remission.

“If they worked for me, I would have fired them in a minute,” Redner said, referring to Bax and Coppola. “They have no idea how a free market works … We can only hope the next governor believes in the fee market and not in cartels who gain marijuana monopolies.”

The state’s system of licensing scheme of cannabis providers, known as medical marijuana treatment centers (MMTCs), has resulted in a stream of legal and administrative challenges.

At least 11 are still pending, though some relate to matters other than licensing, including Orlando attorney John Morgan‘s constitutional challenge of the state’s ban on smoking medicinal cannabis. Plaintiffs backed by Morgan won, and that case too is now under appeal.

Morgan bankrolled the 2016 state constitutional amendment allowing medicinal cannabis, passed by a little more than 71 percent of voters as a ballot question. And Morgan leveled heavy criticism of Bax.

“He was so inept that it had to be intentional. Anyone would be better and more capable,” Morgan said. “He was to health care in Florida what Barney Fife was to law enforcement. This is a great day for the sick and injured in Florida.”

Ben Pollara, campaign manager for Amendment 2’s political committee, said it was “a shame it’s taken this long” for Bax to leave. “

“His tenure has been marked by repeated failures to meet the needs of patients throughout Florida. I sincerely hope the office’s new leadership will learn from those mistakes and act quickly to get Florida’s medical marijuana program fully functional,” said Pollara.

Bax also faced reports he “had little experience when he won a high-profile job that state officials refused to publicly advertise,” relying on his family connections with Gov. Rick Scott, including father James Bax, described as “a wealthy, wired Tallahassee insider.”

Gary Stein, a medical marijuana historian and advocate, acknowledged that Bax “had a Herculean task, made infinitely harder by his lack of experience and probable pressure from above.”

The system “created for him to manage had a flawed application process that forced him to spend far too much time in litigation and far less time in the mandated tasks of regulation and rule-making,” said Stein, a former employee of the Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I was very critical of him because of the high importance of his position and the great needs of hundreds of thousands of patients that relied on the efficiency of his department for critical access to medicine.

“There was no room for the kind of errors and snail’s pace of the OMMU that occurred,” Stein added. “I wish him well, but he didn’t belong there, and he didn’t get the support that he needed … Rather than giving him more infrastructure, they gave him more lawyers.”

But Dr. Jeffrey Sharkey, founder and head of the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida, said he “always had a very productive working relationship with Mr. Bax.”

“… It is not surprising that he and his office have faced a lot of challenges over the last two years in trying to implement a brand new, highly regulated, fast-growing and dynamic medical cannabis industry in one of the largest states in the country, with all of its diverse players, politics and pressures,” Sharkey said.

“To his credit, he managed it professionally and the young industry is in better shape for his efforts. We wish him well.”

Patty Nelson, Bax’s predecessor and now an industry consultant, said the post is one that will draw criticism and scrutiny.

“There’s no denying it’s a hard job. It sometimes feels like an impossible job,” she said. “And you face critics from every direction, which makes it difficult to navigate.”

Coppola, Bax’s successor, began in state government as a 2013 member of the Gubernatorial Fellows Program, working for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation when she was a graduate student at Florida State University.

Kim Rivers, CEO of medical marijuana provider Trulieve, said in a statement Coppola “has a deep working understanding of the medical marijuana program in Florida, and we do not anticipate any issues or interruptions during the transition.”

Coppola appeared before lawmakers earlier this month to ask a special budget panel for another $13 million for operating costs. Legislators have been vexed over the slow-going of the office, including delays in issuing medicinal cannabis patient identification cards, though they granted the request.

They finally pushed back earlier this year when they included a provision from House Republican Jason Brodeur in the 2018-19 budget to withhold more than $1.9 million in Department of Health salaries and benefits until regulators fully implement medical marijuana.

“I can only add to the chorus of voices hoping the office will get going on the rule-making, in accordance with the clear direction given from the Legislature, to ensure people appropriately have access to the drug,” Brodeur said Friday in a text message.

One detail that troubled some lawmakers: $1.5 million of the extra money requested will go to outside lawyers hired by the office to represent it in ongoing litigation.

“Let’s stop wasting taxpayer dollars” on suits the state shouldn’t be appealing, House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz told Coppola. “Please start taking this seriously,” she added, calling the office’s actions part “intentional ineptitude” and part “simple sabotage.”

Material from the News Service of Florida was used in this post.

Written By

Jim Rosica covers state government from Tallahassee for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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