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Lawmakers move cautiously on medical marijuana

The Legislature is on target to nix the state’s smoking ban.

Florida policymakers readily admit that’s the approach they’ve taken when it comes to dealing with pot, both before and after voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana.

Even a new Governor — and with him, an administration that’s no longer hostile to the concept of cannabis as a cure — might not change that, at least during the Legislative Session that begins March 5.

The Republican-dominated Legislature, however, is on target to make one major expansion to the state’s cannabis laws.

Responding to an ultimatum issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis, lawmakers are almost certain to repeal Florida’s ban on smoking medical marijuana. If they don’t act by March 15, the Republican Governor has threatened to drop the state’s appeal of a court ruling that said the ban runs afoul of the 2016 constitutional amendment.

Over the past month, House and Senate leaders have drawn closer to reaching consensus on a repeal, but two differences remain.

The House proposal (HB 7015) would allow dispensaries to sell pre-rolled marijuana cigarettes, but smoking would be off-limits to patients under age 18.

Unlike the House version, the Senate measure (SB 182) would require marijuana operators to sell at least one type of pre-rolled cigarette and would allow them to sell other whole-flower products. It would also let patients buy smoking equipment at other retail outlets, such as smoke shops. The Senate plan would let minors smoke medical marijuana if the patients get a second opinion from a pediatrician.

Both the House and Senate bills are headed to the chamber floors for votes after the Session begins next week.

DeSantis told reporters he’s “talked about some broad strokes with folks” but hasn’t seen the legislation yet. He said he’s “willing to sign things if I can have good faith that it’s implementing the will of the voters” fairly.

“It may not mean I agree philosophically on every little nook and cranny, but we’ve got to meet the constitutional threshold. So if their bill does that, then I’ll look at it. So we’ll see how it shakes out, but both leaders know my position on that,” DeSantis, a Harvard Law School graduate, told reporters Tuesday.

Senate President Bill Galvano and House Speaker José Oliva, whose fortune was made in the cigar business but who has been reluctant to repeal the ban, have deferred to DeSantis, setting aside objections about a paucity of research and concerns about the ill effects of smoking.

“I want to be able to say this is not going to be something that the courts are going to overturn. People voted. We’re going to implement. And then we’re going to move on,” DeSantis said.

The smoking ban was included in a law passed during a special session in 2017, aimed at implementing the constitutional amendment. The law also imposed limits on the number of medical marijuana operators and dispensaries, which gradually increase as the number of patients eligible for cannabis treatment grows.

Leon County circuit judges have found the limits unconstitutional, but the state has appealed.

That state has faced myriad legal and administrative challenges that have mired the medical-marijuana industry in controversy since the Legislature first authorized non-euphoric cannabis in 2014.

The 2014 law was a way for the state to gear up for the anticipated passage of a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana, which happened in 2016.

Critics, including some high-ranking lawmakers, blame delays not only on the legal challenges but accuse former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration of dragging its feet in an effort to curb the proliferation of medical marijuana outlets.

Meanwhile, complaints are piling up about patient affordability and access, the state’s “vertical integration” system that requires operators to grow, process and dispense marijuana and related products, and an inability for new applicants to gain entry into Florida’s lucrative market, projected by one industry analyst to reach $1.6 billion in sales by 2020.

“There are those who feel like they’re on the happy side of the current system, and then those who feel like they’re being shut out of it. I see no reason why it shouldn’t be revisited, and we’ll watch and see what the senators put forth,” Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, recently told reporters.

But while lawmakers appear headed toward meeting DeSantis’ request to eliminate the smoking ban, don’t expect an overhaul of the state’s regulatory system, House Health & Human Services Chairman Ray Rodrigues cautioned.

“I think there’s a frustration in that there should be more access. We anticipated that, at this point, there would be more access. It’s my belief that what we’re going to see is a Department of Health, under Gov. DeSantis, that is more focused on the patient and ensuring the patient has access than we previously saw in the Scott administration,” Rodrigues, an Estero Republican, told The News Service of Florida in a recent interview.

Florida would have 25 medical marijuana operators — 11 more than the current 14 license holders — if the 2017 law had been fully implemented, said Rodrigues, who’s been instrumental in the passage of medical marijuana legislation since its inception in Florida.

“Let’s see what happens when the bill’s fully implemented before we make a decision to blow up a bill that’s never been implemented,” he said. “That said, I do think there are concerns that we’ve seen emerge over the last two years. There will be follow-up legislation that will be looking to address those concerns. But, as far as wholesale changes, I think it would be premature to assume that’s what’s going to happen.”

He said lawmakers might consider measures to help veterans gain access to the treatment, which is available to patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. For example, vets might be able to get free or discounted cards that allow patients to obtain medical marijuana.

“That’s something that a number of folks are interested in. But as far as matters of policy, everything’s been focused on the repeal of the smoking ban, and we’re still working on that. We’re not there yet,” Rodrigues said.

Rodrigues is among lawmakers who are incensed about marijuana operators who’ve “flipped” licenses for between $50 million and $80 million and are selling little or no product.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who’s supported medical marijuana for years, has filed a proposal (SB 1322) that, among other things, would do away with vertical integration and eliminate caps on licenses. Doing away with vertical integration would allow businesses to be licensed to play different roles in the industry.

The state has created an “untenable” regulatory structure that allows operators to “hoard” licenses in order to flip them, he told the News Service.

“It’s going to have to be fixed at some juncture, whether it’s this legislative or future legislative sessions,” Brandes said. “Every time you get new leadership, every time you get a new legislature, you should push forward ideas you believe in. I believe the structure is broken.”

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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