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Tropiflora seeks holdup of new medical marijuana implementing bill

A Florida nursery that previously filed a protest over the Department of Health’s award of medical marijuana licenses is back in court this week.

Tropiflora LLC of Sarasota is asking a judge to delay enforcement of part of the state’s new medical marijuana implementing bill, passed during the recent Special Session. The company filed a motion Monday in Leon County Circuit Civil court.

Specifically, it’s asking for a “stay” of the section of the law‘s “medical marijuana treatment center” licensing scheme. The nursery says the department “wrongfully refused” to consider its license application.

The state law, in effect now, grandfathers in seven existing providers, renames them “medical marijuana treatment centers” (MMTCs) and requires the Department of Health to license 10 new providers by October. The bill also allows four new MMTCs for every increase of 100,000 patients prescribed marijuana.

It limits the number of retail locations each MMTC can open to 25 across the state, and divides that cap by region. As the patient count goes up, five more locations can be opened per provider for every new 100,000 patients in the state’s Medical Marijuana Use Registry. The limits expire in 2020.

In late 2015, Tropiflora was one of the first three nurseries to move against the state over the licensing of growers of medical marijuana. San Felasco Nurseries of Gainesville and Perkins Nursery of LaBelle also filed protests.

At that time, only five licenses were awarded to grow medicinal pot, to Hackney Nursery Co. (northwest region), Chestnut Hill Tree Farm (northeast), Knox Nursery (central), Alpha Foliage (southwest), and Costa Nursery Farms (southeast).

TropiFlora objected because four of the five licenses went to nurseries that also sat on the department’s “negotiated rulemaking” committee, records show.

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.

A three-member panel of state officials in DOH was tasked with selecting five approved pot providers out of 28 nurseries that turned in applications.

Since then, state voters approved a constitutional amendment on medicinal cannabis last year. Lawmakers approved and Scott also signed an implementing bill, which gives guidance and instructions to state agencies on how to enforce state law.

A hearing on Tropiflora’s motion was set for Thursday before Circuit Judge Karen Gievers. Tallahassee attorney Steve Andrews is representing the nursery.

HD 44 special election candidates debate health care, education, marijuana, tourism support

Stark differences of policy positions were evident between the one Democrat and three of the four Republicans running to fill the open Florida House District 44 seat but the differences between the Republicans proved more subtle in a debate Friday, boiling down to who claimed the strongest ownership of particular GOP positions.

The debate sponsored by the West Orange Chamber of Commerce in Ocoee, pitted Democrat Paul Chandler and Republicans Usha Jain, John Newstreet, and Bobby Olszewski, while Republican Bruno Portigliatti sent his regrets.

A few hours after the debate, the West Orange Political Alliance, the political arm of the West Orange Chamber of Commerce, announced it had endorsed Newstreet.

With a question asking how they expected to address the estimated 13 percent of Floridians who are without medical insurance as the Affordable Care Act faces repeal, Olszewski said the state needs to focus on “smart business principles.”

“We need to assure that we have less regulation, to be able to work closely with our insurance companies and our providers. And I think the focus needs to be on preventive medicine. We have a shining example of that here in our own community, with Healthy West Orange, and how they are partnering with West Orange Community Health Care District, and working with our local hospitals and community organizations like the YMCA,” Olszewski said. “When we open up the insurance with competition, and work with our providers with preventive medicine, working with opening up the insurance borders, I think we’ll see a better result here in our home state of Florida.”

Newstreet pointed to his experience as a veteran working within the Veterans Affairs health system.

“As a chamber executive [president of the Kissimmee-Osceola County Chamber of Commerce] I have five hospital facilities within Osceola County and I interact with their CEOs. With the state legislature angle, it’s important we begin with the end in mind. In that regard, I think if the aim to lower costs, to improve outcomes, there definitely is some more work to be done there,” Newstreet said. “Some of the things the Legislature looked at this past session that I think will merit further scrutiny, direct primary care, telemedicine, and as alluded to earlier, preventive care and well-being care programs.”

Jain pointed out that while Olszewski and Newstreet may know hospitals and doctors, she is a doctor — an urgent and emergency care physician in the community for 37 years.
“I have been associated with this issue more than anybody because I see these patients crying; they do not have insurance, they have been waiting in the hospital for many hours,” she said. “That is one of the reasons I am running. I cannot see patients being turned away for not getting care. If you don’t get care, you’ll die. Every citizen should have the right to choose their insurance. We have to have competition. And I want to have a state facility where people can be treated whether you have insurance or not.”

Chandler, who owns a medical billing and data management company, said the answer still lies with getting Florida to include the Medicaid expansion offered in Obamacare. “And the second thing I want to work on is expanding mental health resources and support for mental health treatment centers. Florida is the third most-populous state in the country, yet we’re last in mental health spending,” Chandler said.

The four all pledged support for public education and insisted they consider education critical, with Olszewski and Newstreet pointing out they are the sons of teachers and are married to teachers, and Chandler pointing out he used to be a teacher.

Jain responded with empathy for teachers, saying that her “heart goes out to the people teaching our kids. Where they are, they are not getting enough … Everybody should be paid according to what they do.”

Newstreet and Jain both expressed their personal opposition to medical marijuana and while accepting that it is the law in Florida, both said they would work to keep the program from expanding. Newstreet and Olszewski both said the state must work closely with local governments to make sure they have the tools they need to have local safeguards in place.

“As a Coast Guard veteran where my comrades to this day continue to interdict and fight the drug trade, I can’t support this,” Newstreet said. “But it is the law of the land.”

One of the state’s licensed grower-producer-marketer of marijuana products, Knox Medical, is located in Winter Garden, within HD 44.

Chandler expressed strong support for the medical marijuana program and chastised Republicans for not making more of a priority of last fall’s overwhelming approval of Constitution Amendment 2.

And, Chandler added, medical marijuana should be more available to help people reliant on addictive “painkillers and opiates, which have overdoses and kill people.”

All four expressed strong support for funding for Visit Florida, which the Florida Legislature nearly cut by $25 million amid reports and allegations that it had become an out-of-control and unaccountable agency.

House District 44 is home to Walt Disney World, SeaWorld, and Universal Orlando.

“I think we have a couple of theme parks in House District 44, don’t we?” Olszewski said when asked if he supported Visit Florida. “There is no doubt we need to fund VISIT Florida, but being financially responsible.”

Chandler said VISIT Florida marketing actually contributed to his decision to move to Florida from St. Louis 15 years ago.

Newstreet called tourism the area’s “lifeblood,” and said the tourism community “will have no better friend in Tallahassee than me.”

Health Department getting started on medical marijuana rulemaking

In the wake of the Special Session’s implementing bill, the Florida Department of Health is gearing up to make rules governing the use of medical marijuana.

The department published a “notice of proposed regulation” in the Florida Administrative Register last Friday.

But the state still could face a lawsuit from personal-injury attorney John Morgan, who backed the constitutional amendment on medical marijuana that passed in 2016 with 71 percent of the vote. He has said he will sue because lawmakers would not allow medical marijuana to be smoked.

The implementing bill (SB 8-A) is pending Gov. Rick Scott‘s review, though he said he will sign it.

Among other provisions, the bill grandfathers in seven existing providers, renames them “medical marijuana treatment centers” (MMTCs) and requires the Department to license 10 new providers by October. The bill also allows four new MMTCs for every increase of 100,000 patients prescribed marijuana.

It also limits the number of retail locations each MMTC can open to 25 across the state, and divides that cap by region. As the patient count goes up, five more locations can be opened per provider for every new 100,000 patients in the state’s Medical Marijuana Use Registry. The limits expire in 2020.

The department is working under an expedited rulemaking process to conform with deadlines in the amendment. Lawmakers failed to come to agreement on a bill during this year’s Regular Session. 

Before the amendment, the state in 2014 legalized 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.

The state later expanded the use of medicinal marijuana through another measure, the “Right to Try Act,” that includes patients suffering intractable pain and loss of appetite from terminal illnesses.

 

Ray Rodrigues: ‘We believe we will win’ suit over medical marijuana smoking ban

The sponsor of a bill to implement the 2016 medical marijuana constitutional amendment said he is confident the state would prevail if sued over the proposal’s smoking ban.

“We believe we will win that lawsuit,” said House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, who sponsored the House’s version of the medical marijuana implementing bill during both the regular and special session this year. “We’re proceeding ahead as if the bill we passed is going to be the way the bill is implemented.”

Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved an implementing bill during the special session, which ended Friday. The measure, which Gov. Rick Scott has said he will sign, allows patients who suffer chronic pain related to 10 qualifying conditions to receive either low-THC cannabis or full-strength medical marijuana. Under the bill, edibles and vaping is allowed, but smoking is banned.

“We don’t believe you smoke medicine,” said the Estero Republican. “We believe that smoking causes as much harm as the benefits, particularly when we’re offering vaping, which provides all of the benefits and none of the harm.”

That ban has drawn the ire of John Morgan, the Orlando attorney who helped draft the constitutional amendment and bankrolled the 2014 and 2016 campaigns, and other medical marijuana advocates.  Morgan has said once Scott signs the bill he plans to sue over the smoking ban, saying the 71 percent of Floridians who voted for the amendment expected smoking to be a way to consume it.

“I don’t know why they would object to anyone on their death bed wanting to use what they wanted to relieve pain and suffering,” he said in a phone interview with The Associated Press last week. “If they were really concerned about smoking, why don’t they heavily tax cigarettes?”

Morgan said he plans to file the suit in Leon County, and has enlisted John Mills, a constitutional law expert and the dean emeritus of the University of Florida’ Levin School of Law, to help in the upcoming legal battle.

“I know John Morgan believes he wrote (the amendment so) that it would include smoking. We’ll see what the courts say about that,” said Rodrigues. “We had our legal staff review it first, and it’s very clear where he enumerates in the amendment this was illegal and now this is legal. He did not include smoking in this section, and smoking is illegal today. The section where it enumerated where medical marijuana would be legal does not include that.”

Legislation to implement the 2016 constitutional amendment fell apart on the final day of the regular 2017 Legislative Session after the Senate pushed for retail caps for growers. While medical marijuana wasn’t included in the initial special session call, it was added on Wednesday afternoon — the first day of the three-day of the special session.

Rodrigues said leadership had been in discussions since the end of the regular session about how to work out differences, and finally reached an agreement late Tuesday.

The final bill caps the number of retail locations growers can have at 25 locations across the state. However, the measure allows each grower to open five more locations for every new 100,000 patients in the state’s medical marijuana use registry. The limit on retail locations expires in 2020, a provision that was important for House members, said Rodrigues.

Another important provision was making medical marijuana tax exempt. Rodrigues said that was something House leaders said they wanted to do from the beginning, and something that they were able to get in to the final bill.

Rodrigues said he expects legislation to be filed each session to try to tinker with the state’s medical marijuana program, but said there’s only one way there will be a total overhaul of the system

“I only see one instance where what we’ve implemented is blown up.  We make it clear this is an implementing bill for Amendment 2. Should there be a future amendment for how marijuana is treated in Florida, our amendment is clear … this implementing bill sunsets and an entirely new implementing bill must be devised,” he said. “That’s the only way I see it blowing up, and given how polling numbers have been on recreational marijuana, below 50 percent for years, I don’t’ see that happening anytime soon.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report, reprinted with permission.

Lawmakers finally pass medical marijuana implementation bill

After a false start during the regular Legislative Session, lawmakers Friday passed a medical marijuana implementation bill on the last day of the Special Session, sending it to Gov. Rick Scott.

The wide-ranging legislation (SB 8-A) will give guidance to state regulators as they put the state’s constitutional amendment medical marijuana into effect.

Gov. Rick Scott said later on Friday he will sign the bill into law.

According to the bill analysis’ summary, the measure among other things:

— Grandfathers in seven existing providers, renames them “medical marijuana treatment centers” (MMTCs) and requires the Department of Health to license 10 new providers by October. The bill also allows four new MMTCs for every increase of 100,000 patients prescribed marijuana.

— Limits the number of retail locations each MMTC can open to 25 across the state, and divides that cap by region. As the patient count goes up, five more locations can be opened per provider for every new 100,000 patients in the state’s Medical Marijuana Use Registry. The limits expire in 2020.

A fight over the retail location cap hung up the bill during the session that ended in May.

— Requires laboratory testing of marijuana products and creates a certification program for medical marijuana testing laboratories.

— Exempts the sale of “marijuana and marijuana delivery devices” from state sales tax.

— Establishes “qualifications required to become a caregiver including requiring the Department of Health (DOH) to create a caregiver certification course that each caregiver must take.”

An accompanying public records bill exempts the personal identifying information of patient caregivers that is in the state’s “Compassionate Use Registry.”

Sugar growers: We were not involved ‘in any way’ with medical marijuana implementation

Florida sugar growers are pushing back hard on accusations that “Big Sugar and Big Citrus” had a hand in writing legislation to expand access to medical marijuana.

On Thursday, the Tampa Bay Times reported that that tucked into sweeping legislation on medical marijuana is “preferential treatment to companies that promise to convert orange juice factories and other citrus-processing facilities into marijuana grow sites.”

According to the Times, lawmakers want to replenish Florida’s citrus industry, which has been struggling after seasons of devastating citrus greening affecting crops and the rural communities that rely on oranges and grapefruits.

“It’s clear the language is written to benefit specific groups and specific companies,” Lake Worth Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens told the Times. “They know who is going to benefit. We don’t. And they are writing a bill that benefits these groups.”

Winter Park Democrat Carlos Guillermo Smith chimed in on Twitter: “Big Sugar getting special perks + incentives in cannabis bill! Why am I not surprised? Biz as usual here!” Smith represents House District 49, which covers parts of Orlando.

However, growers are aggressively fighting back on the claim, asserting there is absolutely no connection between the sugar industry and the issue of medical marijuana.

In a statement Friday, U.S. Sugar representative Judy Sanchez called the accusations “completely inaccurate.”

“A recent report from the Tampa Bay Times suggesting medical marijuana legislation was written to benefit U.S. Sugar is completely inaccurate,” Sanchez said. “Our company has NOT been engaged in any way with any member of the Florida Legislature regarding medical marijuana.”

The state Senate passed its version of medical marijuana implementation bill Friday, on the last scheduled day of the three-day Special Session. The bill is now headed to the house.

Senate passes medical marijuana implementation bill

The state Senate passed its medical marijuana implementation bill on Friday, the last scheduled day of the Special Session.

The measure (SB 8-A), after technical and “product safety” amendments were tacked on, was approved by a 28-8 vote.

Senators also passed, 36-0, a related public records bill exempting the personal identifying information of patient caregivers that is in the state’s “Compassionate Use Registry.” Both were sponsored by Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican.

Both bills now travel to the House. The Special Session is scheduled to end 6 p.m. Friday.

In debate, Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens said he still did not believe “this bill implements … the will of the voters.” He has objected to the lack of allowance for medicinal cannabis to be smoked.

Personal-injury attorney John Morgan, who backed the constitutional amendment on medical marijuana that passed in 2016 with 71 percent of the vote, said this week he will sue the state if lawmakers don’t allow medical marijuana to be smoked.

“We have to do the right thing, not just something,” Clemens said. He also objected to preferences for growing licenses that favor nurseries in business for at least 30 years. 

Such operations “know no more about growing cannabis than a college student with a closet,” Clemens added. 

Gainesville Republican Keith Perry, who opposes smoking, pointed to what he called 22 scientific studies showing the perils of smoked cannabis, including cancer and lung diseases.

“It needs to be administered in a form that will not cause further harm to patients,” Perry said. 

Kevin Rader, a Delray Beach Democrat, told a personal story about his mother. She’s near the end of her life and residing in Israel because she needs to take advantage of its socialized medicine system.

She smokes marijuana to manage pain, he said. 

If (patients) want to smoke it, they should be able to smoke it,” he said. “Once (they) realize they can’t smoke it, we’ll be back here to fix it.”

Tom Lee lamented that “every drug has to go through the FDA, but this drug we’ve made a populist decision … but I don’t want to relitigate that.”

The Thonotosassa Republican also feared that the state’s licensing regime will drive up the price of medicinal cannabis so much that some patients will seek it “from the black market.”

He too has a personal stake in the system, though. Lee mentioned a friend undergoing treatment at Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center who urged him to vote for the bill. She wants to use edible “gummy bear” marijuana, which the legislation does permit.

Later Friday, a U.S. Sugar spokeswoman knocked down reports that it would benefit from a special provision in the bill.

It provides for up to two growing licenses to applicants who can show “they own one or more facilities that are, or were, used for the canning, concentrating, or otherwise processing of citrus fruit or citrus molasses, and will use or convert the facility or facilities for the processing of marijuana.”

“Our company has not been engaged in any way with any member of the Florida Legislature regarding medical marijuana,” Judy Sanchez said.

Updated 4 p.m. — The House took up the Senate bill but made minor changes, sending it back to that chamber after OK’ing it by a vote of 103-9.

Evan Jenne

House beats back effort to allow smoking of medical marijuana

A change to the Special Session’s medical marijuana legislation that would have allowed patients to smoke it was handily defeated Thursday.

The amendment offered by Rep. Evan Jenne, a Dania Beach Democrat, was killed on the House floor by a vote of 37-71.

“If a doctor and a patient determine that (smoking) is the best way to alleviate pain, or whatever it might be, then that should be left up to them,” he told reporters after the House’s daily session. “In any doctor-patient relationship, there is no one-size-fits-all.”

But legislative GOP leadership disagrees with the interpretation of John Morgan—attorney, entrepreneur and main backer of Florida’s medical marijuana amendment—that voters contemplated smoking when they approved the constitutional change by 71 percent in 2016.

“I will be suing the state to allow smoke,” he said this week. “It was part of my amendment.”

Others, including House Democrat and attorney Katie Edwards of Plantation, said the amendment was clear. 

She read aloud one section that smoking advocates—including Morgan—cite, that the state can’t “require any accommodation of any on-site medical use of marijuana in any correctional institution or detention facility or place of education or employment, or of smoking medical marijuana in any public place.”

“If I’m wrong, we need to fix this … I do not want us to be sued,” she said. “A lawsuit benefits one attorney, one firm. It does not help us get (marijuana) to the patients any quicker … (and) do not tell us that lawsuits don’t hinder patient access.”

The House eventually set the bill (HB 5A) up for a vote on Friday.

The legislation, among other things, calls for 10 new growers to be licensed this year, in addition to the seven existing ones. Five new growers would be added for every 100,000 patients, and a limit of 25 retail locations per authorized grower will be OK’d, though that limit can rise. That cap will “sunset,” or go away, in 2020.

Jenne also wasn’t looking forward to a suit from Morgan or anyone else.

“I think everyone assumed that that’s what they were voting for,” he said, referring to the smoking of medical cannabis. “And if there is one thing we’re good at as a Legislature, it’s losing in court.”

Whodunit? or, How did citrus get into Special Session medical marijuana bill?

Everyone loves a mystery, so how did a provision to help concerns with underused or shuttered citrus factories get into this year’s medical marijuana legislation?

Language in both bills (SB 8-AHB 5A) would give preferential treatment for up to two growing licenses to applicants who can show “they own one or more facilities that are, or were, used for the canning, concentrating, or otherwise processing of citrus fruit or citrus molasses, and will use or convert the facility or facilities for the processing of marijuana.”

The Senate bill was approved by the Health Policy Committee on Thursday morning. Bill sponsor Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, said he didn’t know where the verbiage came from.

“Im not aware of any specific companies,” he told reporters after the meeting. “It’s consistent with Florida-based businesses being central to how we deal with the burgeoning medical marijuana industry.”

No argument there, but who brought the idea forward, he was asked. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam‘s office, for instance?

Bradley nearly blanched: “Mentioning Adam Putnam and marijuana in the same sentence, that is the first time that has ever been done in my presence. So, no.”

Putnam, now a candidate for governor in 2018, opposed the medical marijuana amendment when it first went to voters in 2014, but recently agreed that lawmakers needed to add marijuana implementation to the Special Session “call.”

That led former state Rep. and now northwest Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz to tweet: “As Agriculture commish he had no interest in helping w cannabis reform when I asked. Now he’s running for gov and is full of opinions #weird.”

House Republican Leader Ray Rodrigues of Estero on Wednesday night also said he was unaware where the language originated. The House bill also cleared its committee there.

A number of lobbyists who work for medical marijuana concerns said they, as well, didn’t know the source of the provision.

One thing’s for sure: The recession and the citrus greening epidemic hit the citrus industry hard, leaving many commercial plants around the state dormant or dead.

“I think it’s good public policy,” Bradley said. “If you travel parts of the state, it breaks your heart to see these old orange juice factories, jobs lost. Transitioning some of those facilities to something new is good.”

Later on Thursday, Sen. Jeff Brandes tried to remove the citrus provision from the bill through a floor amendment.

“This is a carve-in for a special interest,” the St. Petersburg Republican told fellow senators. “It doesn’t look right, it doesn’t feel right.”

Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat, added: “This is a giveaway … we shouldn’t be doing this.”

Even Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican who rose to support the language, still said, “Enough’s enough. This is to support one business and we’ll soon find out who it is.”

The amendment failed on a 16-20 vote. The bill now goes to a final vote Friday.

Medical marijuana shop opening in Edgewater

Another Central Florida medical marijuana shop is opening, this one operated by the licensed marijuana medicines producer Trulieve in Edgewater in Volusia County.

The dispensary, at 103 Boston Rd., will be the first in the Space Coast area, providing both low-THC and high-THC products through capsules, vaporizers and tinctures, for patients who are registered as qualified with the Florida Department of Health’s Office of Compassionate Use.

Last week Knox Medical opened a shop in Orlando.

“Our goal is to help as many patients as we can, so we’re thrilled we can now better serve our patients in Edgewater and Volusia County,” Trulieve Chief Executive Officer Kim Rivers stated in a news release. “Opening new dispensary locations is vital to ensuring faster delivery times and increasing patient access. We will continue to open more locations throughout the rest of the year.”

Trulieve currently delivers marijuana-based medicines statewide, and has five other dispensaries, in Clearwater, Miami, Pensacola, Tallahassee, and Tampa.

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