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State to medical marijuana company: Stop selling vape pens

State regulators have told a South Florida medical marijuana provider to quit selling “unapproved” vape pens.

The Department of Health‘s Office of Medical Marijuana Use sent a “cease and desist” letter Monday to Curaleaf of Miami.

It also tells the company to stop “running unapproved advertisements encouraging (its) product to be used in a manner inconsistent” with state law.

Florida bans medical marijuana from being smoked, but does allow vaporizing, or “vaping.” Vape pens generally are battery-powered devices that heat the cannabis, allowing the user to inhale the vapor produced.

The state told Curaleaf, formerly called Costa Nurseries, that it had not yet OK’d its brand of vaporizer device.

Curaleaf is what’s known in Florida as a medical marijuana treatment center, or MMTC, a vertically-integrated operation that combines growing, processing and retail sales of medicinal cannabis. 

Regulators also cited Curaleaf for “post(ing) an advertisement to its Facebook account (this month) displaying an open herb cartridge with the contents visible.”

“Not only was the Facebook advertisement detailed above not approved, it clearly encourages an improper use of the product,” the letter said.

“Licensed MMTCs have a responsibility to ensure their product is not one that could be easily transitioned into a smokable use.” The Facebook ad “must be removed immediately.”

Failure to comply “will result in a $1,000 fine to $10,000 fine per violation,” the letter adds, with further penalties including the loss of Curaleaf’s MMTC license.

The state gave Curaleaf 24 hours to respond in writing. A company representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. 

In a related matterTrulieve this month filed a petition with the department, accusing the agency of dragging its feet on allowing that company to once again sell its own vaping devices after a similar cease and desist letter.

Trulieve says it’s been waiting since July for approval to offer ceramic vaporizer cups filled with ground marijuana flower.

Hillsborough Dems rally behind Jose Vazquez in HD 58 special election

Over the years, Democrat Jose Vazquez ran (and lost) several local elections, mostly without any organized support from the Hillsborough County Party.

But that is starting to change, as the Party is more energized than ever after Donald Trump‘s stunning election a year ago,

Local Democrats are now hoping to replicate the success they found in the Senate District 40 and St. Petersburg mayoral races this fall in the upcoming House District 58 special election.

Vazquez hasn’t always been an easy candidate to embrace. A Puerto Rican native with a thick English accent, he has an extensive criminal background history, including an infamous run for office as a write-in candidate in 2008 against Democratic incumbent Michael Scionti in the House District 48 race  — while still serving time in prison for a felony conviction of driving with a revoked or suspended license in May 2007.

Now on the campaign trail, Vazquez speaks about his arrest record, pivoting to use his past as a strong talking point for his support for restoring ex-felons voting rights, and the plight of poor and minorities in the criminal justice system.

“How many of you have been stopped for a bad light on your car or a cracked windshield? Or some other offense? Did you get a ticket? We’re you able to pay the fine?” Vazquez asked a crowd of fellow Democrats gathered at the Hillsborough County Children’s Board in Ybor City for the county’s Democratic Executive Committee meeting Monday night.

Vazquez explained that just two months after arriving in the U.S. from Puerto Rico in 1999, he was ticketed for a non-moving vehicle violation. He couldn’t afford to pay the fine (he was making just $7.25 an hour while working at Tampa International Airport).

Also, Vazquez was homeless at the time and thus never received notice that his license was suspended for nonpayment of the fine.

Although he received several other moving violations, Vazquez says he never received notices since he was homeless, and thus labeled a habitual traffic offender. His driver’s license was then suspended for five years, and Vazquez started using a scooter for his transportation. But even that went sour after he was arrested for a law (since rescinded) that all vehicles powered with gasoline required a driver’s license to operate.

“I have been a victim of a system that was and is still today stacked against minorities,” he said. “People who have limited financial resources and often have to make tough choices between paying fines, paying rent, putting food on the table, paying an electric bill, or hiring an attorney.”

He also told the room full of Democrats that while he was also arrested on a domestic violence charge, a charge ultimately dismissed.

Party regulars certainly accept his story — some even say that they are embarrassed over earlier failures to support him in previous races. In 2012, Vazquez ran against Republican Dan Raulerson in HD 58 without any support from the Hillsborough DEC.

In fact, the HCDEC removed any mention of Vasquez from its website in the lead-up to that election, prompting Vazquez to call on then-Party chair Chris Mitchell to resign (he didn’t).

Despite that, Vazquez still took 42 percent of the vote in losing to Raulerson, whose resignation from that same seat this summer (due to health issues) has created the need for this special election, scheduled Dec. 19.

“This is a man who was beat down by the Democratic Party,” said Hillsborough County state committeeman Ross Patterson. “He has worked and worked and worked for our party, even though we didn’t work for him.”

As a write-in candidate, Vazquez then took on Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn as his only opposition in what was otherwise a coronation for the Tampa leader, who garnered 96 percent in his re-election back in March 2015.

Vazquez, 43, is the father of six children, one with a disability. In his speech Monday night, he talked about defending the disabled, the LGBTA community, expanding Medicaid and working on improving public education.

“Unlike most of our nation’s elected officials, I’m familiar with what it is like to struggle, what it’s like to live on the margins, paycheck to paycheck, day-to-day,” he said. “Too often we elect officials who have no real understanding on what life is like across the tracks, what life is like on ‘the other side of town.'”

The crowd bought into his message — literally.

Former DEC Chair Michael Steinberg introduced Vazquez to the crowd by saying that if everyone in attendance (about 100 people) contributed $5 to his campaign, he would match that to get Vazquez $1,000 out of the evening.

He later announced Vazquez had raised $1,015.

Donna Fore, head of the East Hillsborough County Democratic Club, said her group had recently donated $500 to Vazquez campaign, and she encouraged other clubs to follow suit.

Patterson reminded the crowd that there are actually more registered Democrats in HD 58 than Republicans, even though the GOP had dominated control of the seat for several years.

Dover businessman Lawrence McClure is the Republican candidate, and there are two other players in the mix: Libertarian Bryan Zemina and Ahmed Saadaldin, who is with the Green Party (but officially non-party-affiliated) and is, by far, the most progressive candidate in the race.

AIF to fight proposed Constitution amendment on environmental protection

Associated Industries in Florida is preparing for a legal fight to stop a proposed Florida Constitutional amendment, charging that the proposal declaring the right to a “clean and healthful environment” is “dangerously vague.”

AIF announced Tuesday it hired top environmental and regulatory attorneys with the Gunster law firm to stop the Florida Constitution Revision Commission’s Proposal 23, contending the proposal would unleash unwarranted litigation.

The proposal would add to the Florida Constitution the paragraph:

“The natural resources of the state are the legacy of present and future generations. Every person has a right to a clean and healthful environment, including clean air and water; control of pollution; and the conservation and restoration of the natural, scenic, historic, and aesthetic values of the environment as provided by law. Any person may enforce this right against any party, public or private, subject to reasonable limitations, as provided by law.”

In a news release Tuesday, the Associated Industries of Florida declared such an amendment would “provide any person, not just Floridians, the ability to litigate ‘against any party, public or private.'”

“The language is extremely vague and would be open to a wide interpretation from Florida’s legal system, creating mass uncertainty and threatening to upend the work of manufacturers, small businesses, governments and many others across the state,” AIF declared in its news release. “Challenges could be brought against any government entity, business or private citizen, even if they are in full compliance with existing laws or the terms and conditions of existing, valid permits. This amendment circumvents existing avenues to address concerns over air and water quality and instead encourages frivolous lawsuits, which would inevitably drive up business costs and threaten future economic development and expansion in Florida.”

The AIF legal team from Gunster will include former Florida Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Bell, former Florida Public Service Commission Chair Lila Jaber, former Florida First District Court of Appeal Judge Simone Marstiller, and former Flordia Department of Environmental Protection General Counsel Gregory Munson.

“CRC Proposal 23 would no doubt cause more harm than good to our state. This vague amendment would effectively replace the comprehensive and well thought out the regulatory system we have in place today with a piecemeal approach that is decided on a case-by-case basis by the courts,” AIF President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Feeney stated in the release.


Despite holiday, lineworkers headed to Virgin Islands

Public power personnel from four Florida municipal electric utilities will be headed to the U.S. Virgin Islands Tuesday and Wednesday to assist with ongoing power restoration efforts after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the Florida Municipal Electric Association (FMEA) announced.

“After Hurricane Irma tore through nearly the whole state, Florida utilities were the grateful beneficiaries of mutual aid from utilities all across the country,” said Amy Zubaly, FMEA Executive Director.

“We are honored to have this chance to return the favor and help our neighbors in the U.S. Virgin Islands get their lights and their lives back to normal,” she added. “And, we deeply appreciate the service and dedication of these lineworkers who are leaving their families behind during Thanksgiving to assist.”

Thirty-one workers from the City of Tallahassee electric utility, Ocala Electric Utility, City of Homestead electric utility and Fort Pierce Utilities Authority are headed first to St. Croix, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria.

Coming with them more than 30 bucket trucks, pickup trucks, trailers and other pieces of equipment, which will float to St. Croix via barge from Palm Beach. The crews will fly to St. Croix to meet the trucks.

With only 25 percent of the island’s power restored, St. Croix is the first priority. If able, Florida personnel may also assist with restoration efforts on St. Johns and St. Thomas, which were significantly damaged by Irma.

The mutual aid to the U.S. Virgin Islands has been coordinated by FMEA, in conjunction with the American Public Power Association (APPA) and U.S. Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (USVI-WAPA).

“Mutual aid agreements enable municipal utilities to call on each other for emergency workers and supplies,” according to the release. “Florida’s public power utilities benefit from this strong network of partners within Florida and across the country through the APPA. Florida’s municipal electric utilities also have forged mutual aid arrangements with Florida’s investor-owned utilities. These dependable connections have created a reliable system where member utilities both request and offer assistance.”

Vape ’em if you got ’em, Trulieve says

A medical marijuana provider is accusing the Department of Health of dragging its feet on allowing the company to once again sell ‘vaping’ devices.

Trulieve this month filed a petition for declaratory statement with the department, which regulates medicinal cannabis through its Office of Medical Marijuana Use.

In May, the department told Trulieve to stop selling wire-mesh vape cups filled with whole flower marijuana because they could be too easily opened to get at the product inside.

Regulators were concerned the marijuana would then be smoked, not vaped—short for vaporized. State law allows medical marijuana edibles and vaping, but not smoking.

The petition explains the difference, below:

In its latest filing, Trulieve said it asked regulators this July for approval to sell ceramic vaporizer cups filled with ground marijuana flower. The department “did not act on the application within the time allowed … thus (it is) approved by default,” its petition says.

A second application to approve a different vaporizer device is similarly being sat on, and the Health Department “informally declined to recognize” the default OK of the first application under state law, according to the petition.

The department “has no basis to further delay or deny” its official approval of the vaping equipment, Trulieve says.

In 2014, lawmakers passed and Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a measure legalizing low-THC, or “non-euphoric,” marijuana to help children with severe seizures and muscle spasms. THC is the chemical that causes the high from pot.

Two years later, voters approved a state constitutional amendment allowing medicinal cannabis. Lawmakers this year approved and Scott also signed an implementing bill, which gives guidance and instructions to state agencies on how to enforce state law.

Orlando attorney and medical marijuana advocate John Morgan, the main backer of the amendment, is suing the state to allow patients prescribed marijuana to smoke it.

Group launches pro-tax bill robocall campaign in Brian Mast’s, Carlos Curbelo’s districts

American Action Network today is launching a one-million robocall campaign to support Republicans who voted in favor tax reform bill in targeted swing congressional districts including those of Republican U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Brian Mast in Florida.

The calls, from AAN’s Middle-Class Growth Initiative, tell voters that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act approved by the U.S. House of Representatives last week would would cut the taxes of middle-class families by an average of $1,200.

“Your representative, [Curbelo or Mast], kept his promise and voted to cut middle-class taxes. Please call Representative [Curbelo or Mast[ at [his phone number] to thank him.”

The robocalls, going out today to voters in 29 districts nationally, are part of an ongoing campaign by AAN’s Middle-Class Growth Initiative, which has spent $20 million this fall on TV, radio, direct mail, mobile billboards, and other forms of advertising promoting tax reform in 60 total targeted swing districts, including Curbelo’s Florida Congressional District 27 in South Florida and Mast’s Congressional District 18 on the Treasure Coast.

Both Curbelo and Mast face stiff Democratic competition in the 2018 campaign.

“Last week, Congress took a major step toward delivering much-need tax relief for all Americans, but there is still work to be done,” AAN Executive Director Corry Bliss stated in a news release issued by his group. “The Tax Cut and Jobs Act paves the way for middle-class prosperity by lowering rates, increasing jobs, and giving the average middle-class family a $1,200 tax cut. AAN is working to share the winning message of pro-growth tax reform, and will continue spending resources to spread that message until meaningful tax reform is signed into law.”


FSU statue, building names cause for concern

The names of B.K. Roberts and Francis Eppes are a major concern of Florida State University’s new statue and building name review panel, if public comment at Monday’s meeting is any indication.

The advisory panel, created by FSU president John Thrasher in the wake of the violent acts in Charlottesville, Virginia, also discussed university rules and future efforts to ensure transparency.

Photo: FSU

The Students for Democratic Society (SDS) chapter at the university spoke first, sharing its reasons for removing a statue commemorating Eppes, a grandson of Thomas Jefferson and a Leon County slave owner.

SDS previously championed a referendum to remove the statue, but that failed. The Tallahassee Democrat reported last October that FSU students “overwhelmingly defeated a proposal seeking the removal of a statue honoring … Eppes from campus and the removal of his name from a campus building.”

Zachary Schultz, a member of SDS, told the panel he could provide it with research surrounding Eppes’ role in the Confederacy and slave activity.

He also lauded the work the panel will do to review what other universities have done to reconsider controversial statues.

“We look forward to … progressive steps in removing racist slave owners and other figures that really should not be on college campuses,” Schultz told the panel.

Danni Vogt, who said he was a three-time graduate of FSU, voiced his concerns over B.K. Roberts Hall.

Photo: State Archives of Florida/Deborah Thomas

Roberts was the dean of the university’s law school and a former Florida chief justice. He also wrote the Florida Supreme Court’s 1957 majority opinion to deny law school admission to Virgil Hawkins, an African American, at the University of Florida.

“No one really took into account how Virgil Hawkins felt,” Vogt told the committee, addressing the fact that Roberts’ opinion occurred at a time when schools were still segregated.

Vogt said he would be developing a website that can serve as a resource for the panel. The website will serve as a database for information and research regarding Roberts and Hawkins. 

Following comment time, the panel (its full name is “The Florida State University President’s Advisory Panel on University Namings and Recognitions”) discussed its agenda and toyed with the idea of hosting an open forum.

The next meeting is Dec. 13 and by then it expects to regularly post minutes and meeting notices.

Al Lawson makes money pitch for CFO hopeful Jeremy Ring

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson doesn’t seem too worried about a pending primary challenge for his Jacksonville-to-Tallahassee North Florida district.

He lent his imprimatur to a fundraising pitch for CFO hopeful Jeremy Ring on Monday, a chaser to an endorsement he and other Florida Congressional Democrats offered last week.

“I had the great pleasure to serve with Jeremy in the Florida Senate. He was an effective leader who was able to get real results for his district and was well-respected on both sides of the aisle,” Lawson writes.

“Jeremy has extensive financial experience and will take his innovative ideas and mindset to Tallahassee. Electing Jeremy will be putting Florida in good hands,” Lawson adds.

Ring, the sole Democrat thus far filed, has nearly $200,000 cash on hand.

He most likely will face incumbent CFO Jimmy Patronis next November.

Patronis has yet to report hard money, having filed for election in November, but his Treasure Florida political action committee has nearly $650,000 on hand after a $431,000 October haul.


State moves forward with disputed pot ID contract

After hearing a litany of complaints from lawmakers, state health officials are moving forward with a contested contract to process medical-marijuana patient identification cards.

State Surgeon General Celeste Philip signed a contract with Jacksonville-based Veritec LLC, citing emergency powers “to avoid an immediate and serious danger to public health.”

Patients have complained about months-long delays in getting the cards, which are required before they can purchase marijuana products from state-sanctioned dispensaries after doctors order the treatment.

Lawmakers have publicly questioned state pot czar Christian Bax about the hold-ups, which he blamed on his office’s inability to move forward with the outsourcing of the ID cards.

After the Department of Health announced its intent to grant the $7.4 million contract to Veritec, losing bidder Automated Health Solutions – which bid about $9.3 million – immediately said it would protest the decision.

The protest threatened to delay for months the outsourcing of the ID cards – ordered by lawmakers in a sweeping bill passed in June. That bill was intended to carry out a voter-approved constitutional amendment broadly legalizing medical marijuana.

Under Philip’s order, the outsourcing will begin while the administrative challenge moves forward. Along with serving as surgeon general, Philip is secretary of the Florida Department of Health, which is in charge of carrying out medical-marijuana laws.

“We have heard the concerns of patients, caregivers and the Legislature and have determined that expediting the OMMU (Office of Medical Marijuana Use) identification card program is necessary to ensure timely access for patients. The rate of growth of this program has proven that we cannot wait for an ITN (Invitation to Negotiate) protest without impacting patients currently suffering from qualifying medical conditions,” Department of Health spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said in an email.

In a memo Wednesday about the signing of the contract with Veritec, Philip said the Office of Medical Marijuana Use has printed more than 29,000 patient and caregiver cards. But the health department expects an exponential rise in the number of patients – to between 300,000 and 500,000 – over the next two years.

The number of new patients added daily has nearly tripled since March, from 90 to 264, according to Philip.

And because lawmakers ordered the outsourcing of the ID cards, Bax’s office lacks the staff to address the task, Philip said.

“The card application program is extremely resource-intensive, and further continued diversion of OMMU personnel to serve the needs of the card program will negatively impact OMMU’s core regulatory functions,” she wrote.

Nearly all of the 17 full-time employees and 18 temporary workers hired by Bax are devoted to dealing with the cards either full-time or part time, according to Philip.

She said the office won’t be able to process applications and print cards in a timely manner once the number of patients added to a state registry reaches 350 per day, which Philip said will occur within the next two months. The work overload will result in delays of up to three months before patients get their cards, she said.

“Moving forward with a vendor for the card program and call center will benefit patients, caregivers, and the department,” she wrote.

The outsourcing of the ID cards will allow Bax’s staff “to concentrate on their core functions,” such as regulating medical marijuana treatment centers, working with physicians and facilitating patient access, Philips wrote in the memo.

The ID cards are just one of a series of challenges in Florida’s medical marijuana arena.

The state is also dealing with several lawsuits. One challenge focuses on a law banning medical marijuana from being smoked. Another challenges a ban on “home grows.” A separate lawsuit is challenging portions of the June law that set aside a medical marijuana license for a black farmer who meets certain requirements. And a fourth is centered on a preference in the law for up to two applicants from the citrus industry.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

State seeks end to satellite TV tax fight

Attorney General Pam Bondi‘s office has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reject a challenge to the constitutionality of a state law that sets different tax rates for satellite and cable-television services.

Bondi’s office, representing the Florida Department of Revenue, filed a brief last week arguing that the Supreme Court should not take up the challenge filed by Dish Network.

The satellite TV industry has long argued that a law setting a lower state tax rate for cable services discriminates against satellite companies and violates what is known as the “dormant” Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

But in the brief last week, attorneys for the state argued that a federal telecommunications law prevents local governments from taxing satellite services. As a result, the brief said, the state set a higher tax rate for satellite services and shares part of the money with local governments. Meanwhile, local governments can tax cable services.

“If a state taxes communications services at the state and local levels, as Florida does, the only way to ensure that the state receives the same revenue from satellite as other communications services while ensuring that local governments may also receive revenue is to tax satellite at a higher rate and share the revenue with local governments,” the 49-page brief said.

The case has high stakes for the state, along with the cable and satellite industries. A 2015 ruling in favor of the satellite industry by the state’s 1st District Court of Appeal raised the possibility of Florida having to pay refunds to satellite companies.

The Florida Supreme Court, however, overturned the 1st District Court of Appeal ruling in April and sided with the Department of Revenue. That prompted Dish Network to take the dispute to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state’s communications-services tax is s 4.92 percent on the sale of cable services and 9.07 percent on the sale of satellite-TV services. Local governments also can impose communications-services taxes on cable, with rates varying.

Dish Network contends the different state tax rates on satellite and cable are a form of protectionism that violates the “dormant” Commerce Clause, which bars states from discriminating against interstate commerce.

“In particular, it forbids a state from taxing or regulating differently on the basis of where a good is produced or a service is performed,” Dish Network said in a September petition posted on the SCOTUSblog website, which closely tracks the U.S. Supreme Court. “That’s exactly what the unequal Florida tax does. It puts a heavier duty on pay-TV programming that is assembled and delivered without using massive infrastructure within the state.”

But in the brief filed last week, Bondi’s office said the combination of state and local taxes can lead to cable services being taxed at a higher rate than satellite services.

“Because local governments set their own local CST (communications-services tax) rates, the statewide satellite CST cannot perfectly match the combined CST rates for other communications services,” the brief said. “But in all nine years examined, the average satellite subscriber paid a lower CST rate than the average cable subscriber, giving satellite a tax advantage every year.”

It is unclear when the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to take up the case.

(Disclosure: The News Service of Florida has a partnership with Florida Internet & Television, a cable-industry group, for a periodic news program about state government and politics.)

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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