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Leaders Battle Over Marijuana Bill Failure


With its fate now in the hands of state health officials, Republican legislative leaders are blaming each other for failing to create a framework for carrying out a voter-approved constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.
The finger-pointing came after eleventh-hour negotiations between House and Senate leaders bombed in the waning hours of the legislative session Friday, when all issues but the budget closed out.

In an interview with The News Service of Florida, Senate President Joe Negron put the onus on the House for the bill's demise. But House Speaker Richard Corcoran rejected that premise.

The medical marijuana issue led to a major lobbying battle throughout the 2017 legislative session. That included high-powered lobbyists representing seven medical-marijuana operators already licensed to do business in Florida after lawmakers approved limited medical-marijuana laws in 2014 and 2016.

The November constitutional amendment, approved by more than 71 percent of voters, sparked a “green rush” for investors, growers and ancillary business owners eager to capitalize on what could be one of the largest pot markets in the country, with an estimated 500,000 patients, according to the Department of Health, in its first year.

The issue pitted the already-established operators against businesses in and out of Florida seeking to break up what critics characterized as an established “cartel.”

While GOP leaders in the House and Senate began far apart on how to approach the implementation of what was known as Amendment 2, they ironed out most of their differences in the waning days of the session.

But two key sticking points — the number of licensed marijuana operators and how many retail locations they should run — ultimately proved a breach too big to seal.

The Senate wanted to limit the number of dispensaries each operator could open, while the House — which originally backed an unlimited number of storefronts —  preferred a more liberal approach that would have, at least temporarily, favored the current license-holders.

A plan approved by the Senate would have required 10 new medical marijuana licenses by the fall, along with a cap of 10 dispensaries, which would increase as the number of eligible patients in a statewide database increased.

Late Friday, the House approved a measure that would have required 10 new licenses by July 2018, with a limit of 100 dispensaries for each license holder.

A frustrated Negron contacted the News Service on Sunday afternoon to offer his take on the breakdown over the legislation, faulting the House's last-minute amendment for the stand-off that ultimately killed the bill.

“People are saying the House was the free market. No, it wasn't. The Senate was the free market. The Senate was 10 immediate licenses. We put a reasonable limitation on dispensaries so everyone could compete,” Negron, R-Stuart, said.

But Corcoran insisted that Negron, not the House, was responsible for the Legislature's failure to act on the constitutional amendment.

“The House did everything it could to pass a bill that complied with the voters' wishes on everything we could, including sending a bill back with over three hours left in session for the Senate to be able to pass,” Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, said in a telephone interview Sunday evening.

Negron maintained the Senate never received the bill from the House, while House leaders contend that was because the Senate stopped receiving messages Friday evening after deciding to call it quits.