State Medical Marijuana Chief Stepping Down

Jul 30, 2018

After three years as a target of ire amid delays and disputes clouding Florida's nascent medical-marijuana industry, Christian Bax is stepping down as the state's pot czar.

Bax, who’s been at the helm of what is now known as the Office of Medical Marijuana Use since the first cannabis products went on the shelves, leaves as state health officials gird for another round of headaches as they prepare for an onslaught of applications for a handful of highly sought-after marijuana licenses.

Bax, a lawyer, has been widely criticized by legislators, patients and “ganjapreneurs” trying to establish a footprint in the state’s restricted and intensely competitive medical-marijuana market.

The critiques were amplified after Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment broadly legalizing medical marijuana in 2016.

Bax will be replaced by his deputy director, Courtney Coppola, who went to work for the office shortly after Bax was hired in 2015.

In a resignation letter to Department of Health Chief of Staff Cindy Dick dated Friday, Bax said he “will be leaving no later than August 10.”

“It has been an incredible honor to have served the department and the people of Florida in the task of building something entirely new in this state,” Bax wrote.

Bax’s departure was met with mixed reactions, with the harshest coming from Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, who largely bankrolled the constitutional amendment known as “Amendment 2,” which was approved by more than 71 percent of voters.

“He was so inept that it had to be intentional. Anyone would be better and more capable,” Morgan said in an email. “He was to health care in Florida what Barney Fife was to law enforcement. This is a great day for the sick and injured in Florida.”

Morgan sued the state on behalf of ailing patients and others after the Legislature last year included a ban on smokable marijuana in a law aimed at implementing the 2016 amendment. A circuit judge sided with Morgan and the plaintiffs, but the state has appealed the decision.

Ben Pollara, the campaign manager of the political committee behind Amendment 2, said “it’s a shame it’s taken this long” for Bax to leave.

“His tenure has been marked by repeated failures to meet the needs of patients throughout Florida. I sincerely hope the office’s new leadership will learn from those mistakes and act quickly to get Florida’s medical marijuana program fully functional,” said Pollara, who’s also the head of the non-profit organization Florida for Care, which advocates for patients and the medical marijuana industry.

But others maintained that hiccups were to be expected as Florida lawmakers --- and regulators --- struggled to create a blueprint for an industry expected to generate $2 billion in sales in what could be one of the nation’s largest medical marijuana markets.

“It’s no surprise that he’s been under a lot of pressure trying to manage this rapidly growing medical cannabis industry, with all its politics and pressures and health care concerns,” said Jeff Sharkey, a lobbyist who represents licensed medical-marijuana operators as well as others seeking to set up shop in Florida.

Medical marijuana in Florida has been mired in controversy since lawmakers first legalized non-euphoric cannabis in 2014. The rollout of the industry has faced a series of delays because of regulatory and legal challenges, and Bax and his office have borne the brunt of the blame.

“There’s no denying it’s a hard job. It sometimes feels like an impossible job. And you face critics from every direction, which makes it difficult to navigate,” Bax’s predecessor, Patty Nelson, said in a telephone interview. Nelson is now a consultant.

The gripes regarding Bax’s oversight of the marijuana office have been numerous. Patients have complained about lengthy wait times to get required ID cards processed. Administrative law judges have repeatedly rejected health officials’ decisions about the awarding of licenses. And lawmakers have piled on.

Bax came under fire after failing to meet a legislatively mandated deadline last fall to hand out five new medical marijuana licenses. He blamed the delay on Hurricane Irma and a pending legal challenge to a 2017 law that ordered health officials to expand the number of medical marijuana licenses.

“I'm not buying that just because there's litigation out there you can't fulfill your statutory duty to issue these additional licenses,” Senate Health Policy Chairwoman Dana Young, a Republican lawyer from Tampa, scolded Bax during an October committee meeting.

This spring, state lawmakers --- still fuming over the lack of progress on the licenses --- retaliated against Bax by holding back $1.9 million in salaries and benefits for his office. Two weeks ago, Bax’s office laid out a revised process for four new licenses, which will almost certainly draw additional challenges.

But industry insiders, and even his critics, said they did not believe Bax’s exit --- coming as health officials prepare to deal with an estimated 400 applications for the four slots --- would inject uncertainty into the state’s blossoming medical marijuana arena.

“Instability is to be expected” in a new industry, Rep. Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican who pushed to include the $1.9 million holdback in the state budget, said in a text.

“The least government can do for business is to be predictable in its regulation. We have yet to get to the point of predictable regulation because of the department’s delay. I hope this provides an opportunity to meet expectations,” he said.

A legislative panel last week agreed to boost Bax’s budget by $13.29 million to help process applications for the new licenses and to cover the costs of ongoing litigation. Appearing before the committee, Coppola said the office has 11 ongoing lawsuits and has had “nearly double” that number since 2015. The request for the additional money came just weeks after the new state budget went into effect.

Industry insiders universally agreed they would be in capable hands with Coppola, who went to work for the state of Florida as a gubernatorial fellow in 2013 and who has recently taken a more public profile as Bax’s lieutenant.

“Courtney is very well qualified and respected in the industry. Given her years of experience and substantive knowledge, she is the ideal person to take over the reins at the OMMU (Office of Medical Marijuana Use),” lawyer Jim McKee, who represents medical marijuana operators, told the News Service.

But Senate budget chief Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who has played an instrumental role in crafting and passing medical marijuana laws, put Coppola on notice.

“The bipartisan frustration with the slow implementation of this law has been well documented.  Last week, Ms. Coppola gave the Legislature a plan to finish implementation of the law. Now that she is in charge, our expectation is for her to execute her plan and finish the job,” he said in a text.