Joe Reedy, Author at Florida Politics

Joe Reedy

Legislature makes slow progress on medical pot rules

Florida’s voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in November that formally legalized medical marijuana for chronic pain and other ailments, but with less than a month to go in their session, Florida legislators remain far apart on how to implement it.

Bills in the Senate and House don’t agree on the details of expanding access to the drug, from adding pot distributors to deciding whether doctors can prescribe marijuana to people who haven’t been their patients for at least three months.

The Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley (SB 406) is seen as more permissive and has drawn support from medical marijuana advocates, while the House bill sponsored by Rep. Ray Rodrigues (HB 1397) is widely considered more restrictive and is backed by the Drug-Free America Foundation.

The Senate measure would eliminate a current requirement that a patient be under a doctor’s care for more than 90 days before being able to get a prescription for marijuana — a restriction that would be kept in place under the House version. The Senate bill would immediately expand the number of licenses issued for marijuana distributors in the state, while the House version would require that 150,000 patients sign up for medical marijuana use before expanding the existing pool of distributors.

Taylor Patrick Biehl, who help runs the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida, said Bradley’s Senate bill is more in line with what voters approved.

“He’s turned out to be a true champion for patients,” Biehl said.

Disabled veteran Bill Cody called the House bill an “abomination” and said even Bradley’s bill doesn’t provide doctors with enough leeway to determine what ailments could qualify for marijuana prescriptions.

The amendment passed by voters would expand its use beyond the limited prescriptions for low-strength marijuana allowed under a 2014 law. It also would expand the eligible ailments beyond the current list of cancer, epilepsy and chronic muscle spasms, to include HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder, ALS, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, or other similar conditions.

The state Health Department would issue regulations defining the additional conditions, but Cody said that could be too restrictive. He thinks doctors should be explicitly authorized to decide what conditions should qualify.

“There are many cases of chronic pain that are not covered currently,” he said.

The amendment stipulates that new rules must be adopted by July 3. If lawmakers cannot agree on them by their May 5 end of session, the Health Department would issue regulations on its own, but those would be more vulnerable to legal challenges, essentially leaving the issue up to the courts.

Doctors and patients remain in limbo. Sunai Edwards, a lawyer at GrayRobinson in Tampa, has received plenty of calls from doctors and has given them all the same advice: Wait until the new rules are implemented.

The bills in each chamber have gone through only one of three scheduled committees. Still, the campaign manager for medical marijuana advocates United for Care, Ben Pollara, remains optimistic a bill will be passed.

“Hopefully all issues can be resolved. We want something done. It’s about getting something in place,” Pollara said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press

Legislation would help Florida craft distilleries, breweries

Philip McDaniel is like most craft distillers in Florida – he is frustrated that he can sell only two bottles per label a year to each visitor of his distillery in St. Augustine when breweries and wineries can sell as much as they want.

McDaniel, who makes rum, gin and vodka, wants that bottle limit lifted. Meanwhile, small craft beer breweries in the state want to be able to expand their businesses by selling to retailers without going through distributors.

Those proposals are part of bills moving through the Florida Legislature. As in past years, the changes are being opposed by liquor stores and distributors who see it as cutting into their business. Florida’s three-tier system of suppliers, distributors and retailers, which has been in place since the end of prohibition, is considered more restrictive than other states.

“If you summarize the bill in one sentence, it puts us on the same playing field as breweries and wineries,” McDaniel said.

Gabe Grass of GrassLands Brewing in Tallahassee said most breweries and distillers do not want to have their own large-scale distribution system, but that the bills do offer a way for emerging businesses to get their brands into the marketplace sooner.

Grass supports Senator Dana Young‘s craft breweries bill (SB 554) because it would allow brewers to directly sell up to 7,000 kegs to bars and restaurants before needing a distributor. In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill allowing craft breweries to sell unlimited products at their breweries.

Eric Criss, who represents Miller/Coors Distributors, says the current system is fine and that Florida brewers already have some of the more generous retail privileges in the country. He cites consumers being able to buy unlimited quantities of beer at tap houses compared to Alabama, where the limit is 128 ounces a day per person.

“Brewers say that they only want to distribute in small areas close to them but in many cases, those are the best accounts in the areas,” Criss said.

Sen. Greg Steube‘s bill (SB 166) would allow customers to purchase as many bottles of craft liquor that they want. The current law, which was approved in 2013, allows customers to buy only two bottles per label per year. It also allows distillers to sell liquor at one other salesroom located in the same county.

Florida is 10th in the nation in number of craft distilleries. McDaniel said he worries out-of-state craft distillers will be able to come into Florida and sell their product.

Scott Ashley, president of Wine and Spirits Distributors of Florida, said high-end wines are harder to put on their shelves because wineries can directly sell them and that he sees the same thing happening with craft liquors.

Richard deMontollin, owner of Tallahassee’s Liberty Bar and Grille, said he welcomes more products from Florida distilleries.

“It grows agriculture and makes me feel as a bar owner I can do something cool for my customers,” he said.

Florida officials, voters clash over medical marijuana rules

Three months after Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment on medical marijuana, state health officials and prospective pot-seeking patients are at odds over proposed rules that would spell out who could get marijuana.

State officials have recommended restrictions on what type of patients can qualify for medical marijuana, and where they can obtain it. Their suggestions, however, have prompted a wave of opposition across the state, with nearly 1,300 residents attending what are normally low-key bureaucratic hearings to press for less restricted access to marijuana.

“Patients, doctors, caregivers and activists all had a unified message which is rare,” said Ben Pollara, who is the campaign manager for United for Care. “They want impediments removed and a free market place.”

Amendment 2, which was approved by 71 percent of voters last November, was enacted on Jan. 3. It allows higher-strength marijuana to be used for a wider list of medical ailments than what was currently allowed in state law. The rules have become a flashpoint because the amendment requires the state to adopt them by July 3 and have them in place by September.

The state held hearings in several locations and Thursday’s two hours of public testimony in Tallahassee mirrored what happened earlier this week in Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando. Most who spoke statewide are also concerned about high prices and limited availability so far of marijuana products. Only five of the seven organizations approved to dispense cannabis are up and running.

Activists want a requirement eliminated that a patient must be under a prescribing physician’s care for at least 90 days. They also believe it should be up to doctors to deem when medical marijuana is necessary and not be confined by the conditions enumerated in the amendment or by the Board of Medicine.

Doug Bench, a former judge who testified in Tallahassee, said that people often delay seeing a doctor until they urgently need treatment.

“When you are ill you, you put it off. You don’t want to hear what the doctor says and by the time you finally go you need it now,” Bench said.

The current law – which was approved by the state legislature in 2014 – allows for non-smoked, low-THC pot for patients with cancer or ailments that cause chronic seizures or severe spasms. It was expanded last March to allow patients with terminal conditions to gain access to higher strength cannabis.

The department will review all comments it has received and agency officials will then publish another proposed rule. How quickly that rule gets published depends on subsequent public comments or any legal challenges.

The Florida Legislature will also get a chance to weigh in. There are two bills in the Senate with the House of Representatives expected to release its version before session opens on March 7.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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