Lawmakers, Regulators Face Short Timeline To Roll Out Medical Marijuana

Nov 27, 2016
Originally published on November 23, 2016 1:05 pm

A strong majority of Florida’s voters came together behind a constitutional amendment allowing medical marijuana.  Now Florida’s lawmakers have to come together to roll out the changes.

Florida’s legislative efforts in the realm of medical marijuana have been a slow motion train wreck.  After passing a limited program in 2014, regulators and nurseries sparred for two years over who should be allowed to grow the plants.  In the meantime the drug’s champions and detractors squared off in the capitol twice over measures to bolster the program—eventually settling on an expansion of the right to try act which grants access to terminal patients.  It’s been rancorous from the outset, but regulatory attorney Richard Blau explains now Florida’s leaders are on the clock.

“The six month period of time when the Department of Health and its Office of Compassionate Use are supposed to begin issuing regulations governing this new industry, that six months is a relatively short period of time for creating an entire industry out of nothing,” Blau says.

The department isn’t exactly starting from nothing, but the amendment’s demands are substantial.  The list of tasks includes issuing ID cards and planning the renewal process, establishing standards for caregivers and treatment centers, and figuring out how much of the drug patients should be allowed to hold.  But Jessica Spencer, policy coordinator for the No On 2 campaign has a few other items she wants the Legislature to address as it implements the initiative backed by personal injury lawyer John Morgan.

“Mr. Morgan specifically promised that this was only going to be for really, really, really sick people,” Spencer says, “and that the Legislature could outright ban pot candy, and also that municipalities could outright ban potshops from their cities and counties.”

But Orange Park Republican Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Orange Park) is cautious about meddling with the state’s existing, hard-won regulatory framework.

“There is a delivery system in place, ready to go,” he says.  “So I anticipate it being a smooth transition from what we have right now to a post-Amendment Two world, and I think a lot of these issues have already been addressed.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) says, “I think the existing framework is an embarrassment and a disaster.”

He and Bradley have worked together on medical marijuana measures in the past, but Brandes compares the existing licenses to Willy Wonka’s golden tickets.

“I don’t think that’s right,” he says, “I think we need to have a much more free market open system.”

“High strict standards to get in, high strict standards for safety, it’s got to look, act and feel medical,” Brandes ticks off, “But there should be—for people who want to start growing, want to start producing—there should be standards which if they can meet they should be able to enter into the industry.”

Florida’s six existing dispensing organizations are likely watching closely to see which approach wins out.  If lawmakers choose to do nothing, state law already includes provisions to add more nurseries once the number of patients cracks the 250,000 mark—but only three of them.  Kim Rivers, for one, isn’t eager to see the floodgates open.  She’s CEO of the dispensing organization Trulieve.

“There was a high bar,” Rivers says, “and we’ve met that bar.  I think personally we’ve exceeded it, and our hope for our industry is that the bar remains high.”

Whether lawmakers choose to make a fresh start or leave the current framework in place, it seems the most likely place they could weigh in is the matter of ‘other debilitating conditions.’  Opponents see that open-ended postscript to the list of eligible conditions as a major loophole, and even some supporters worry about nebulous symptoms like chronic pain becoming enough for a marijuana recommendation.

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