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Florida Senate approves medical marijuana expansion bill

A bill expanding medical marijuana now heads to the governor, after state lawmakers spent hours debating the merits of the proposal.

The state Senate voted 28-11 to approve a bill (HB 307) that expands the Right to Try Act to include medical marijuana. Among other things, the bill allows eligible patients — defined as someone with one year left to live — can purchase medical marijuana from dispensing organizations.

Under the proposal, licensed organizations can grow and distribute medical marijuana — not just the low-THC products authorized under the 2014 Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act — to terminally ill patients.

While the bill aims to give relief to more people in need, many lawmakers focused on the regulatory framework outlined in the bill.

“We’re too focused on legality and procedures,” said Sen. Charlie Dean, an Inverness Republican. “We need to focus on helping children.”

The bill, sponsored by Fleming Island Republican Sen. Rob Bradley in the Senate, also creates new regulatory standards, gives assurances to the five nurseries that won licenses in Decembers and paves the way for more dispensing organizations to be get licenses in the future.

The bill authorizes the state to approve three more dispensing organizations once 250,000 qualified patients register with the compassionate use registry.

Lawmakers questioned whether the state would ever get to 250,000 qualified patients. Sen. Geraldine Thompson, an Orlando Democrat, said she didn’t believe any of the states that already have medical marijuana laws on the books have 250,000 qualified patients.

Sen. Jeff Clemens was among those who voted against the measure. Last week, the Lake Worth Democrat proposed several amendments that would have increased the number of authorized dispensing organizations in Florida. All of those amendments were shot down.

“A vote for this bill isn’t fixing the problem, it is continuing the problem,” said Clemens, who encouraged lawmakers to vote against the bill and return in 2017 to make changes to correct the state law.

Lawmakers may have to come back next year to tweak the regulations anyway. A constitutional amendment to make medical marijuana available to more Floridians is on the ballot this November.

“Today the Senate agonized over, before finally passing, SB 460, which supposedly expands the number of eligible medical marijuana patients in Florida. Unfortunately, because of the persistent ineptitude of the state legislature, there are presently zero eligible medical marijuana patients in the state,” said Ben Pollara, the campaign manager for United for Care, the organization backing the 2016 amendment, in a statement.  “The bill’s passage today is merely more lipstick on the pig that is Tallahassee’s failed ‘medical marijuana’ law. Sick and suffering Floridians will only see relief by approving Amendment 2 in the November election.”

A similar amendment on the 2014 ballot received 58 percent, just short of the 60 percent needed to become law. According to a recent Public Policy Polling survey, the 2016 amendment is supported by about 65 percent of registered voters.

Bradley acknowledged that the process of getting products to patients has been fraught with complications. However, Bradley said the measure “delivers on the promise made to families.”

The bill now heads to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature or veto.

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