A Tallahassee judge refused Monday to allow the House of Representatives to intervene in a medical marijuana lawsuit, saying the Republican-dominated chamber should sue the federal government if lawmakers are unhappy that he struck down a 2017 pot-related statute as unconstitutional.
Ruling from the bench during a hearing, Tallahassee Circuit Judge Charles Dodson rejected the House’s request to intervene in the lawsuit filed by Tampa-based Florigrown, owned in part by prominent strip-club operator Joe Redner.
Florigrown is challenging a state law, passed during a special legislative session last year, aimed at implementing a voter-approved 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.
Dodson ruled last month that the law — which, among other things, capped the number of medical marijuana licenses the Florida Department of Health can approve — was unconstitutional and ordered the state to begin registering Florigrown and other medical-marijuana firms to do business in the state.
The health department has appealed the case, but Dodson on Monday refused to keep his October order from going into effect during the appeal. Monday’s decision also is expected to be appealed.
Seeking to intervene in the lawsuit, the House argued that Dodson “improvidently” characterized the 2017 law as unconstitutional. Instead, the House said, the 2017 law was carefully crafted to carry out the constitutional amendment and to comply with federal guidance about medical-marijuana issues.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, though it has been legalized for medicinal or recreational uses in more than three dozen states, including Florida.
During Monday’s hearing, Dodson accused the House, in its motion to intervene, of “using a lot of big, fancy words that made it sound like I didn’t know what I was doing” in the Oct. 5 order.
The House’s position would essentially undermine any marijuana-related laws or regulations, the judge said.
“Your argument doesn’t make any sense to me,” Dodson told House General Counsel Adam Tanenbaum. “Bear with me, because I’m slow, but I’m steady.”
But Tanenbaum said only the Legislature, and not the health department, “has the authority to make policy for the state of Florida.”
As a result, the House should be allowed to be a party in the lawsuit to defend the policy, Tanenbaum said.
“And if the Legislature makes policy for the state of Florida, it’s got to be policy that’s constitutional, right?” Dodson asked.
“But who is authorized to thread that needle or do something to effectuate the will of the voters, while trying to hue to some suggestion from the federal government as to what their policy is and is not, where they’re going to enforce and where they’re not,” the House’s lawyer asked.
Dodson suggested lawmakers should look for relief elsewhere.
“Has the House considered filing suit against the federal government? Because looks like to me, that’s where the rub is,” Dodson said. “Seems to me you’re saying that any medical marijuana legislation is going to conflict with federal government requirements, but yet I should let the Legislature come into this lawsuit, for what reason?”
“Well, your honor, the alternative is that the court strikes down the entire medical marijuana amendment, and I don’t think anyone’s asking that,” Tanenbaum said.
The circuit judge in October found fault with parts of the law that, among other things, capped the number of marijuana licenses and created a “vertical integration” system that requires marijuana operators to grow and process cannabis and distribute related products.
Already-licensed operators worried that the ruling could create uncertainty in the fast-growing industry — while also allowing more companies to receive licenses.
The House filed the motion to intervene a little more than a week after 10 House leaders — including state Reps. Paul Renner, Chris Sprowls and Ray Rodrigues — sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott, asking him not to drop the legal battle.
According to the state Division of Elections website, Surterra Wellness — one of the state’s 14 medical-marijuana operators — and its affiliates contributed at least $57,000 to House leaders or their political campaigns within days after the House filed its motion to intervene in the Florigrown case.
The records show that Surterra contributed $15,000 to Floridians for Economic Freedom, a political committee linked to Sprowls, on Oct. 25, the day the motion to intervene was filed, and $10,000 to the committee on Oct. 29. Surterra also donated another $1,000 to Sprowls’ campaign on Oct. 30. The Clearwater Republican is slated to take over as House speaker in 2020.
On the same days as the contributions to Sprowls’ committee, Surterra gave $5,000 donations to “Conservatives for Principled Leadership,” a political committee affiliated with Renner, a Palm Coast Republican who will succeed Sprowls as speaker in 2022.
On Oct. 25 and 29, Surterra also made $5,000 contributions to “First Coast Conservatives,” a committee linked to new House Appropriations Chairman Travis Cummings, an Orange Park Republican.
And on Oct. 25 and Oct. 30, Surterra made two $5,000 contributions to “Free Markets for Florida,” a committee associated with Rodrigues, an Estero Republican who will head up the House Health and Human Services Committee in 2019 and 2020.
As House majority leader over the past two years, Rodrigues played a major role in crafting and passing marijuana-related legislation. Surterra also gave Rodrigues’ personal campaign a $1,000 contribution on Oct. 30.
During Monday’s hearing, Florigrown lawyer Luke Lirot called the House’s objections to Dodson’s decision to allow Florigrown and others to get licensed by the state an attempt to protect Florida’s current license holders, which he called “golden ticket winners.”
“What’s really disturbing is that instead of embracing the clear dictates of this court’s orders, they still resist any acknowledgement of the plain language of Amendment 2. They are still trying to protect the oligopoly that they’ve created, with this white-collar cartel,” Lirot told The News Service of Florida following Monday’s hearing.
Dodson is scheduled to hold a hearing Dec. 5 to consider motions from nearly a dozen prospective marijuana operators to join the case, which was filed almost a year ago.
Redner is involved in a separate marijuana-related legal challenge. Siding with Redner earlier this year, Circuit Judge Karen Gievers said the 78-year-old Redner should be allowed to grow his own marijuana for juicing purposes. Redner’s doctors said that would be the best way for him to prevent a recurrence of lung cancer. That case is under appeal.