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House Seeks To Defend Medical Marijuana Law

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.

The Florida House is seeking to intervene in a potentially far-reaching legal battle about the constitutionality of a 2017 law that set regulations for the state’s medical-marijuana industry.

House lawyers last week requested approval to help defend the law, which was designed to carry out a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana. A Leon County circuit judge this month sided with a Tampa-based firm that contends the 2017 law did not properly follow the constitutional amendment, in part because the law capped the number of medical-marijuana licenses that can be issued.

In a motion filed last week seeking to intervene in the case, House lawyers contended that the 2017 law was carefully crafted to carry out the voter-approved constitutional amendment and to comply with federal guidance about medical- marijuana issues. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, though it has been legalized for medicinal and recreational uses in various states.

“The House seeks to intervene here to defend the Legislature’s prudent effort at striking the necessary, delicate balance between implementation of the voter-adopted MMA policy (the medical marijuana constitutional amendment), on the one hand, and conflicting federal drug policy, on the other,” the motion to intervene said. “Indeed, the House has a direct interest in preserving, from judicial encroachment, the Legislature’s constitutional prerogative to address such a conflict and effectuate the voters’ will to the extent federal law will allow.”

The Tampa-based firm Florigrown, which had unsuccessfully sought a state license to get into the medical-marijuana industry, filed the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the 2017 law. Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson agreed that the law was unconstitutional and issued a temporary injunction Oct. 5 that required state health officials to begin registering Florigrown and other medical-marijuana firms to do business.

Gov. Rick Scott’s administration appealed, which had the effect of placing an automatic stay on Dodson’s ruling while the 1st District Court of Appeal considers the issues. Florigrown last week filed a motion in Dodson’s court to vacate the automatic stay, alleging that the Legislature had tried to create an “oligarchy” by limiting the number of licenses in what is expected to be a lucrative industry.

“This oligarchy has resulted in the creation of astronomic and artificial values in ‘licenses,’ contrary to the goal of making medical marijuana ‘safe and available’ and at the expense of qualifying patients and those so woefully in need of compassion, not exploitation by the select few,” Florigrown attorneys wrote.

Dodson has scheduled a Nov. 19 hearing to consider several issues, including the motion to vacate the automatic stay and the House’s request to intervene. While Dodson granted a temporary injunction, the underlying lawsuit also remains in his court.

The 2017 law ordered health officials to grant licenses to operators who were already up and running at the time in Florida or who were involved in litigation as of Jan. 1, 2017. The law also required a license for a black farmer who meets certain conditions and set aside a preference for applicants with certain ties to the citrus industry.

Dodson’s ruling found fault with caps on the number of licenses and issues such as the creation of a “vertical integration” system that requires marijuana operators to grow, process and sell medical marijuana --- as opposed to businesses being licensed to play different roles in the industry. More than 71 percent of voters approved the medical-marijuana constitutional amendment in 2016.

In seeking to intervene in the case last week, House lawyers pointed to 2013 guidance from the Obama-era U.S. Justice Department that indicated state and local governments should have tight regulatory systems for medical marijuana. It also said uncertainty has been “amplified” by the Trump administration’s tougher stance on marijuana, which this year included rescinding the 2013 guidance.

“Only the Legislature --- made up of the citizens’ representatives --- has the constitutional authority to navigate the state through the tempestuous waters caused by the direct conflict between federal policy and a state policy enacted by citizen initiative,” the House lawyers wrote.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.