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Hazy Outlook for Medical Pot Legislation

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

  Proposals by two Republican lawmakers to legalize medical marijuana have a slim chance of passing this legislative session, based on the comments of a Senate committee chairman who helps control the fate of that chamber's measure.

Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, created a buzz on Tuesday when he filed a bill that would expand Florida's limited medical marijuana law, approved last year but yet to be implemented.

Steube's proposal (HB 683) would allow doctors to order medical marijuana for patients with certain conditions but would not allow the pot to be smoked, a concession to the Florida Sheriffs Association, which came out in opposition to a similar bill (SB 528) released two weeks ago by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

Both proposals would allow doctors to order medical marijuana for patients diagnosed with certain conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's disease and Crohn's disease. But, unlike the Senate plan, Steube's bill would not give doctors the leeway to order the pot for symptoms such as chronic pain or nausea.

Brandes said he would be willing to consider scaling back his proposal to align with Steube's non-smokable version. Florida voters in November narrowly rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have legalized medical marijuana, including the smokable form.

"I think it (Steube's proposal) is a great first step. I'm excited that we're going to have this discussion in the Legislature and not a take-it-or-leave-it offer in the Constitution," Brandes said.

Even Steube's narrower version, however, may be on life support before getting an initial hearing in either chamber.

Lawmakers last year legalized cannabis that is low in euphoria-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and high in cannabadiol, or CBD, for patients who suffer from severe spasms or cancer. Under the law, Department of Health officials were supposed to have selected five entities to grow, process and distribute the low-THC substance by Jan. 1.

But, because of a legal challenge, the regulations setting up the framework for the state's new pot industry are months away from going into effect, and patients may not be able to purchase the product until the fall.

Brandes' proposal is slated to be considered first by the Senate Regulated Industries Committee. But Chairman Rob Bradley, who sponsored last year's marijuana measure (SB 1030), isn't a fan of the broader bills now on tap.

"I'm of the school of thought that we need to allow this issue to naturally unfold by making sure that we crawl before we walk and walk before we run," Bradley, R-Fleming Island, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday. "I want to see 1030 (last year's measure) get implemented. And then let's see what works and what doesn't with regard to the bill that we've already passed."

Bradley said he is especially leery of expanding Florida's current law because of problems caused by legalization of medical marijuana in states such as Colorado and California.

"It's much more difficult to scale back than it is to know what works, make sure you get that down and then ease into a system," he said.

Some lawmakers, however, want the Legislature to pass a bill to thwart a second attempt at a constitutional amendment.

Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, who spent at least $3 million getting Amendment 2 on the ballot last year, is gearing up to put a similar proposal on the 2016 ballot. Some Republicans fear the medical marijuana initiative would be much more likely to pass in a presidential election, when Democrats --- who might be more likely to support the effort --- show up in higher numbers than in mid-term elections like last year's. Amendment 2, which would have legalized medical marijuana, received 58 percent of the vote in November, just shy of the 60 percent required for passage.

"I certainly think that the Legislature should be the ones who address this issue. I'm optimistic that we can negotiate between the House and the Senate and maybe at least allow the members to fully vet the issue and hear from all the stakeholders and kind of go from there," Steube, R-Sarasota, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday.

But Bradley, who controls whether the bill will be heard, remained unconvinced that the Legislature should act now.

"While I'm certainly aware of what's going on with the John Morgan efforts and the constitutional amendments, I don't think that should dictate our timetables. What should dictate our timetables is what is in the best interest of the people of the state of Florida," he said.