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Scott Powers

medical marijuana

New group seeks to steer medical marijuana between control, free market

As at least one key lawmaker pushes to open Florida’s coming medical marijuana industry to a free market and the current seven licensed companies fight to keep it tight, a new advocacy group is emerging saying it wants to help develop a middle ground.

Smart Medicine For Florida will be pushing for regulations that would assure quality, safety, and security while also seeking a market open enough to assure fair pricing and the voices of patients and doctors, said the new group’s leader, Brian Hughes.

The new group will be emerging in coming weeks with details as the Florida Legislature begins in ernest to transition from the very limited, low-THC marijuana medicine production and distribution program that began in 2016 to the much broader one authorized when voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 2 in November, essentially legalizing all forms of medicines derived from marijuana.

That legislative debate could pingpong between interests that still want to regulate medical marijuana into non-existence, to rising advocacy for a free-market.

“We intend to be a voice in the middle of this debate about what’s gong to happen with Amendment 2,” Hughes said. “It feels like there’s a space for patients and doctors and people regardless of where they stood on Amendment 2.”

Amendment 2 allows for virtually all forms of marijuana medicines from edibles to smoke, to treat any disabling medical conditions. That’s a huge step from the program authorized by the Florida Legislature in 2015, which allows only oil extracts, only from plants essentially devoid of the THC chemical that can make people high, and only for patients with epilepsy, a few other neurological disorders, and certain cancer treatments.

With the limited market that had been envisioned for the current program, it was limited to just seven highly-regulated statewide producers. Already some lawmakers are saying that does not make sense for a future market that could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year now that Amendment 2 has been approved.

Among them, state Sen. Jeff Brandes is calling for a free market. His Senate Bill 614 sets that up with no vertical integration of marijuana businesses. And now he has called out the House of Representatives on expectations that it will follow the same philosophy.

“The House of Representatives has been a steadfast supporter of the free market. The House stands against government intervention that picks winners and losers, and opposes onerous rules and regulations that distort the private sector,” Brandes said in a statement.

“The laws in place today governing Florida’s medical marijuana system restrict market participants, and it is tailor-made for a few influential businesses to dominate the industry,” Brandes continued. “The result of this type of market distortion is often higher prices, shortages of goods, and a lower quality product for consumers. Given the free market track record of the House, I am confident that they will not buckle under the pressure of the special interests of the existing cartel who wrote the current broken medical marijuana law.”

Hughes said his group wants to see what ideas emerge from the Florida Legislature and to work with those. He cautioned against any wide-open market that could lead to a situation like California’s which have become notorious for pot shops masquerading as medical dispensaries.

“The voters approved a medical marijuana policy that provides medicine to patients. They did not approve recreational use. Florida is not California and doesn’t want to become California,” Hughes said. “Creating the wild west of weed in Florida and claiming it’s about free markets is not a responsible way forward.

“Medical marijuana is a drug,” Hughes added. “So policymakers have a responsibility to ensure it is appropriately regulated for patient safety and medical quality while at the same time ensuring reasonable access to those in need. Done the right way, this will end the illicit market that exists to keep marijuana off our streets and out of our schools.”

Tri-Rail sticking with, defending, controversial $500M, one-bid contract

The operators of South Florida’s Tri-Rail commuter train are sticking to their guns, defending their process that disqualified five of six bidders for a half-billion dollar contract, and hoping to win back angry state leaders who want to cut their state funding over the matter.

“Right now, we’re moving forward. We followed a process, and we put the process in place,” said C. Mikel Oglesby, deputy executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority.

That process has Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida Department of Transportation and state Sen. Jeff Brandes, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development, all threatening to cut Tri-Rail’s money.

Their concerns are over how and why the regional transportation authority disqualified five lower bids before awarding the contract to Herzog Transit Services for $511 million for ten years.

The contract is a merged program that brings together the operations, train maintenance, track maintenance and dispatching for a commuter rail that serves 4 million people a year along a line from West Palm Beach to Miami.

The authority requested the proposals late last summer, and they were all submitted in December. Late in December the authority’s procurement staff, backed by its Technical Committee, ruled that five companies ignored explicit rules and made their proposals conditional, meaning their bottom lines might not be their ultimate bottom lines.

Their proposals were tossed, even though they were for less money, as low as $396 million over ten years. The bidding process wasn’t all about money; 80 percent of the competition had to do with other matters such as reliability and programmatic assurances. But no one knows how the others stacked up against Herzog on those scores because the tossed proposals were never scored.

All that is known for sure is that Herzog’s bid cost the most.

Tri-Rail gets about $42 million in operating subsidies from the Florida Legislature, through the Florida Department of Transportation, and also was slated to get $156 million in infrastructure money from the state.

Now all that’s at risk as the authority goes forward with what Oglesby said was the fair, appropriate and legal outcome of a bidding process in which all the bidders but one failed to follow the rules.

State officials though fear something may be amiss. In Scott’s budget proposal, Tri-Rail’s programmed infrastructure money was zeroed out, with a notation that Tri-Rail could get it only if it revisited the operations and maintenance contract award. Brandes was furious when the board ignored his concerns and approved the Herzog contract on Jan. 27, and threatened that money.

“We hope it doesn’t come to that,” Oglesby said.

The authority will get its first chance to defend itself and try to rescuer that funding Thursday morning before Brandes’s committee.

“We think that once they hear from us tomorrow, they’ll see that we followed the rules. I think they’ll have a better understanding about what we did and why we did it,” Oglesby said. “We’ll make sure we’re thorough and really succinct in our explanation. And it’s going to really come down to, what do we do next?”

Even at $511 million, Herzog’s proposal appeared reasonable, he said. That’s because the authority’s private, outside engineering estimate for what the services likely were worth had come to $530 million, so Herzog beat the cost estimate.

The authority also must deal with challenges from the losing companies, who deny that there was anything conditional about their proposals. Three of them went to court in January and argued that the authority’s procurement staff and technical committee had misinterpreted and mischaracterized their proposals, and that the Authority had the full power to hold them to their written bottom lines, regardless of whether there were concerns about the proposals being conditional.

However, in a preliminary decision, Circuit Judge Barbara McCarthy of Broward County sided with the authority.

“A judge listened to them for four and a half hours at a hearing and found that our procurement director’s determination was reasonable. She realized, yes, the proposers did condition, even though they claimed they didn’t,” Oglesby said. “A judge said they did. Our procurement director said they did. Our attorneys said they did. And ultimately, as we moved forward and got a majority board vote, the board agreed.”

There also is the issue of the riders, Oglesby added. Herzog met all the conditions with no caveats, including addressing some additional services such as providing ground transportation to other points away from the tracks, while the authority contended some of the other proposals left that up in the air.

The new services are to be in place July 1.

Extending the process by rejecting what essentially is a qualified bid below estimates and seeking to either rebid or re-award the contract would at the least cause delays of unknown length, he added; and then Herzog would have grounds to challenge.

“You have 4 million riders scratching their heads right now, wondering what’s going on, and why aren’t we moving forward and doing the right thing for us,” he said.

Donald Trump rally in Melbourne confirmed

President Donald Trump will be holding a rally in Melbourne Saturday afternoon in what is essentially a re-election campaign stop being promoted by his campaign.

Team Trump-Pence, the successor to Donald J. Trump for President, announced the president’s rally would be at a 5 p.m. event at the AeroMod International Hangar at Orlando-Melbourne International Airport.

The appearance presumably is on his way for his weekly weekend visit to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. It also comes hours after SpaceX will be making the first launch of a Falcon 9 rocket from the historic Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center a few miles up the coast, fueling speculation that the president may also make a space center visit and take in the historic launch during his time in Brevard County.

His return to Melbourne is a return to one of the hottest campaign rally spots Trump had in Florida during his triumphant run through last summer and fall. A stop he made there in September — at another hangar at the Melbourne Airport — was absolutely overwhelmed with supporters who became infamously rowdy for him that evening.

There he’s likely to get a crowd not concerned with what his critics have focused on during his first month, including his relationship with Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin, his fights with the federal judiciary, or his staff’s gaffes and repeated misstatements. He’s likely to leave energized by an audience enamored by his immigration, border control, trade, and deregulation moves during his first weeks.

It’ll also be his first purely public appearance in Florida since he was sworn into office Jan. 20, though he has ben to Mar-a-Lago nearly every weekend.

Free tickets for the Melbourne event are available through the Team Trump-Pence websiteThe announcement also notes that campaign merchandise will be sold at the event. Doors open at 3 p.m.

Bobby DuBose challenges Richard Corcoran’s ‘terrorists’ comments

With all but an OMG! reference, House Democratic Leader Pro-Tempore Bobby DuBose has challenged House Speaker Richard Corcoran to share anything he has to back up claims that terrorists have likely infiltrated Muslim refugees in Florida.

DuBose sent a letter Tuesday to Corcoran and copied several key Republican lawmakers urging the speaker to “share with me any information you have received from FDLE or other law enforcement agencies that lend credence to your assertion.”

DuBose, of Fort Lauderdale, is responding to an interview Corcoran gave over the weekend in which DuBose said Corcoran stated there is a “tremendous potential likelihood … based on facts” that terrorists have infiltrated the 1,200 refugees from Muslim-majority nations who were resettled in Florida in 2016.

DuBose also is reacting to state Rep. David Santiago‘s House Bill 427, which would withdraw Florida from the federal refugee resettlement program.

“I owe it to our constituents, the members of our caucus, and my fellow committee members to inform them of any credible information that shows the people of Florida may be at risk,” DeBose wrote. “The timely release of this information is vitally important as it could influence how members vote on HB 427, a piece of legislation scheduled to be heard this week in a subcommittee.”

DuBose is ranking member on the House Health and Human Services Committee. That committee’s chairman, state Rep. Travis Cummings, was copied on the letter; as were Santiago; state Rep. Gayle Harrell, chair of the Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee; and state Rep. Jason Brodeur, chair of the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee.

Updated noon Wednesday: DuBose said he had “yet to receive a response from Speaker Corcoran detailing the facts behind his allegations.”

“I am disappointed that Speaker Corcoran has so far refused to respond to my request for more information on the ‘facts’ behind his statement,” DuBose said in a statement. “If it is truly the case that there is hard evidence that terrorists have infiltrated Florida’s refugee resettlement program, this is information that should be shared with the public immediately.

“Nothing is more important than protecting the safety and well-being of our fellow Floridians, and with HB 427 pending before the House right now, it is vital members have a clear view of the security situation facing our state before they vote,” he added. “I look forward to reviewing the data Speaker Corcoran has compiled as soon as possible.”

Darren Soto, Bill Nelson want NOAA to double up on hurricane planes

NOAA needs back-up hurricane hunter planes, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Darren Soto insist.

The pair of Democratic Florida lawmakers – Soto is from Orlando – have introduced bills requiring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to buy and maintain back-up planes.

“Right now we only have one set, so if there is a problem we could be deeply exposed to hurricanes in Florida or anywhere in the southeast United States,” Soto said.

On Tuesday he filed House Resolution 1008 calling for NOAA to “secure and maintain secondary backup capability for each class of hurricane reconnaissance, research, surveillance and response aircraft sufficient to prevent a single point of failure.” Last month Nelson filed a similar bill in the U.S. Senate. Both bills authorize the appropriation of necessary funds.

NOAA already has two so-called “hurricane hunter” aircraft, Lockheed WP-3D Orion four-engine turboprops that can fly into hurricanes to probe wind and pressure changes. It has only one Gulfstream IV-SP jet, which flies above storms to collect data on the weather systems in the upper atmosphere surrounding developing hurricanes. They all fly out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

Soto said he expects the bills have a good chance of approval in the next few weeks, possibly as part of a bigger package. Nelson’s bill has been referred to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, on which he is ranking member. Soto’s bill has not yet been read.

This is the first time Florida’s senior senator and the freshman congressman from Orlando have worked together on legislation.

‘Groveland Four’s’ haunting 1949 injustice addressed in resolutions

Two South Florida lawmakers are hoping to get Florida to make some amends for one of the darkest moments of the racist Jim Crow days, with bills seeking exoneration for the so called “Groveland Four,” young black men and teenagers killed or imprisoned over false 1949 rape charges.

State Rep. Bobby DuBose and state Sen. Gary Farmer, both Democrats from Fort Lauderdale, introduced resolutions seeking exonerations and pardons for Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas, and apologies to their surviving families.

The quartet’s long-overlooked story was brought to national light in Gilbert King‘s 2012 Book “Devil In The Grove,” which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize after showing how racist injustice of late 1940s and early ’50s Lake and Madison counties had ended or destroyed their lives.

“It has been so well-documented,” Farmer said. “There is so much in the way of evidence that was either withheld or excluded from the legal proceedings. FBI files have been revealed now that shed light on the investigation that wasn’t available back then. And it has been the subject of a lot of research and study.”

Last year then state Sen. Geraldine Thompson of Orlando introduced a similar bill in the Florida Senate but it had no house companion and it went no where. Farmer said he spoke with Thompson before crafting the new resolution.

DuBose’s Resolution 631, filed earlier this month, and Farmer’s Senate Concurrent Resolution 920, filed Tuesday, resolve that, “we hereby acknowledge that Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas were the victims of gross injustices and that we apologize to the families of the Groveland Four for all of the aforementioned wrongs and deem the four men formally exonerated” and that “the Legislature urges the Governor and Cabinet to review the cases of Walter Irvin and Charles Greenlee and to grant Mr. Irvin and Mr. Greenlee pardons.”

Irvin and Greenlee were the only two who lived long enough to be convicted after first trial convictions were overturned.

Legendary NAACP lawyer and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was their attorney during appeals and second trials.

As portrayed in King’s book and detailed in DuBose’s and Farmer’s resolutions, the four were falsely accused by a 17-year-old, white, married, teen girl and her estranged husband of raping her on a rural Lake County road outside of Groveland.

Thomas was then shot dead by a posse. Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepherd were arrested and severely beaten in custody until Greenlee and Shepherd offered false confessions. The three were tried and convicted, even though all had alibis and much of the testimony and evidence against them appeared manufactured. Greenlee, who was only 16 at the time of the crime, got a life sentence, while Irvin and Shepherd were given death sentences. Through Marshall’s appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court overturned their cases. Before the new trials, Irvin and Shepherd were shot in custody, and Shepherd died. Greenlee and Irvin were re-tried and re-convicted.

In 1955 Gov. LeRoy Collins commuted Irvin’s sentence to life in prison, and he was paroled in 1968. The next year, hours after he made his first return to Lake County, for an uncle’s funeral, he died under mysterious circumstances. Greenlee was paroled in 1962, and died in 2012.

“This is not about assigning any kind of blame or calling out any folks who might have been involved in the prosecution or law enforcement side,” Farmer said. “It was a very different era. I’m not looking to be judgmental about that or cast blame or disparage any of the folks.

“It’s just about these four men and their families, who suffered great injustice. It continues to live on,” Farmer added. “The time is right to right that wrong.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, a high-budget movie is being produced of “Devil In The Grove.”

Farmer said he wasn’t aware of the movie. Asked about the prospect that the movie could end with a text epilogue announcing that in 2017 the Florida Legislature exonerated the men and Gov. Rick Scott pardoned them, Farmer replied,

“That would be a great ending to the movie.”

Unions, others urging Disney Chair Bob Iger to quit Donald Trump

Walt Disney World employee unions, community members, faith leaders, immigrant organizations, students and others are planning a protest outside the gates of the theme park resort Tuesday afternoon seeking to urge Walt Disney Co. Chairman Bob Iger to step down from President Donald Trump‘s Strategic and Policy Forum.

he organizers, who include Disney’s UNITE HERE union Locals 737 and 362 and Organize Florida, will be announcing the presentation of a petition with more than 300,000 signatures calling for Iger to step away from the White House and renounce immigration policies announced by Trump, said Local 737 President Jeremy Cruz-Haicken.

The groups are part of a national campaign targeting the policy forum members.

“This is an initial step in asking, along with the community, for Iger to do the right thing for the values of cast members, the values of the community and the values of the company,” Cruz-Haicken said.

At a rally and press conference set for 4:30 p.m. at the Apopka-Vineland Road (State Road 535) and Hotel Plaza Boulevard, he’ll be joined by Rasha Mubarak, CAIR-Flordia; Angie McKinnon, UNITE HERE; Ahtziry Barrera, Fuerza Inmigrante; Anamaria Romero, Organize Florida, Orlando community members, faith leaders, and farmworkers, according to organizers.

Winter Park businessman Chris King mulling gubernatorial run

Winter Park businessman Chris King is mulling a 2018 Democratic run for governor in Florida, sources close to him said Monday.

While not highly active in Central Florida political circles, King, president and CEO of Elevation Financial Group in Winter Park has been exploring prospects, with national consultants based in Washington D.C., of an outsider’s run with a mixture of liberal social and business-oriented views.

Adam Smith of the Tampa Bay Times reports that Obama alums Larry Grisolano of AKPD Message and Media and Jeremy Bird of 270 Strategies are closing to joining King’s team.

The son of Marilyn and David King, the latter the Orlando lawyer who represented the League of Women Voters in its successful Fair Districts Amendments legal fights with Florida that forced the state to redistrict Senate and congressional seats, T. Christopher King, 38, runs a company that invests in and manages real estate.

He has spoken at length with the Orlando Sentinel about the need to spur development of affordable housing, and last summer published a guest column in the Sentinel urging Christian churches to embrace the LGBT community, following last summer’s massacre at the popular Orlando gay nightclub Pulse.

King, a Winter Park High School graduate, holds an undergraduate degree in religion, politics and American public policy from Harvard University, where he was elected class marshal; and a law degree from the University of Florida, where he won mock trial competitions.

If King enters the race, he could wind up in a primary battle with several other Democrats, including fellow Orlando-area lawyer John Morgan and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee.

King told Smith that “we have to make a decision in the next 30 to 60 days.”

Paul Paulson seeds state Ag Commissioner campaign with $120K

Orlando businessman and former lawyer Paul Paulson has seeded his campaign to run for Florida Agriculture Commissioner in 2018 with a $120,000 personal loan.

Paulson, a state committeeman with the Orange County Republican Party and 2015 candidate for Orlando mayor, entered the agriculture commissioner race in late December, seeking to succeed fellow Republican Adam Putnam, who is term-limited out at the end of 2018.

Republican state Sen. Denise Grimsley of Lake Placid also has entered the race.

New campaign finance reports posted by the Florida Division of Elections show he lent his campaign $120,000 in January. He also spent $32,000, with $18,000 of that going to BEAG Inc. political consulting in Maryland and the rest to J.M. Design of Winter Garden for printing. He did not report raising any other money.

However, Paulson said he has hired a fundraiser and is using his personal money to get the infrastructure set up for a statewide campaign.

“I don’t mind putting my money where my mouth is,” Paulson said.

Grimsley raised $40,700 through the end of January, with about half of that transferred in from her last Senate campaign fund, and the rest coming from scores of donors. She’s spent about $36,000, on a variety of items.

Paulson, whose business is mostly in real estate, lost the 2015 mayoral election to incumbent Mayor Buddy Dyer by 30 points. Still, he’s remained a fixture around the City Beautiful, as a director of the Orlando Marathon, administrator of the Breast Cancer Outreach Foundation, and organizer in various veterans’ groups. He is a former Army combat infantry officer.

Paulson, who grew up on a cattle farm in Minnesota, is a member of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, raises cattle in east Orange County, and has a citrus farm in Lake County.

Five routes proposed to extend S.R. 408 eastward on tap Thursday

Five possible corridors are being unveiled publicly to possibly expand Central Florida Expressway Authority’s East-West Expressway eastward toward Brevard County and none of them can avoid going through the environmentally- and politically-sensitive area of East Orange County.

The expressway authority will unveil the five Thursday night at a 5 p.m. public workshop at the Eastpoint Fellowship Church on Old Cheney Highway near Bithlo.

The eastward proposed extension of State Road 408, the main expressway running through the center of Orlando and connecting the east and west sides, has been talked about for at least a decade and there remains no timetable for it to actually get built.

One long-held prospect had it essentially using the current State Road 50 corridor as far east as State Road 528, but last year the Florida Department of Transportation told the authority no, because it has plans to widen S.R. 50, also known as Colonial Drive, on its own.

The area is growing in reputation as one clogged with traffic, and the Orlando metropolitan area’s ties to the Space Coast to the east are growing, so pressure is building to build something.

At the same time, pressure is building to build nothing.

The expressway authority’s latest proposals follow five routes, within roughly a half-mile north or south of S.R. 50, extending from the current last leg of S.R. 408 to roughly where S.R. 50 and S.R. 528 meet between the hamlets of Bithlo and Christmas. The farthest northern corridor roughly follows Lake Pickett Road until it reaches the swampy pasture areas east of Bithlo, then turns south to S.R. 50. The farthest southern route would cut through the Avalon Park community, follow the Econlockhatchee River corridor south, and then turn east to S.R. 528.

All five would require new bridges across the Econonlockhatchee River and all five would enter the pasturelands east of Bithlo, both considered highly-sensitive environmental areas.

Developments in that area – particularly involving the FDOT’s plans to expand S.R. 50, sparked huge political battles in 2016. One large development, titled The Grow, in the Lake Pickett-Econlockhatchee River area, got approved by the Orange County Board of Commissioners, while another, called Sustany, got rejected. Along the way, anti-growth advocate Emily Bonilla got elected to the board of commissioners, upsetting longtime commissioner Ted Edwards, who had voted yes for both developments.

That grassroots opposition – hoping to retain the rural, environmentally-fresh and largely-undeveloped character of Orange County east of the Econlockhatchee River, remains a powerful voice. Bonilla has begun longterm plans to find ways to preserve the area’s character.

The expressway authority is beginning project development and environmental studies on five alternative routes that would push a multi-lane divided, controlled-access toll road eastward through the area.

Spokesman Brian Hutchings said there are no timetables for development of the road, and the no-build option will remain on the table.

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