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Changes On The Horizon For State's Medical Marijuana Industry


The advent of a new administration with Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis at the helm could bring a sharp turnaround in how Florida officials approach the state’s highly regulated medical marijuana industry.

And one of the first reversals might come on the legal front.

DeSantis, a Republican who will take office on Jan. 8, is unwilling to continue some of the court battles now being waged by outgoing Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, according to Lt. Gov.-elect Jeanette Nuñez.

When asked where the DeSantis administration stands on the caps on medical marijuana licenses imposed by the state Legislature and whether the new governor plans to continue the appeals launched by Scott, Nuñez told The News Service of Florida Wednesday that DeSantis “has said he’s not interested in continuing that fight.”

“I think he has a different perspective than Gov. Scott. I think he wants the will of the voters to be implemented,” Nuñez, a former state representative from Miami, said.

Nuñez was referring to the 2016 constitutional amendment, approved by 71.3 percent of Florida voters, broadly legalizing medical marijuana.

A Tallahassee judge recently ruled that a 2017 law, aimed at implementing the amendment, was unconstitutional. Earlier this year, Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson ordered state health officials to begin registering new medical-marijuana operators after deciding the law, passed during a special legislative session last year, failed to properly carry out the amendment.

The circuit judge found fault with parts of the law that, among other things, capped the number of marijuana licenses and created a “vertical integration” system that requires marijuana operators to grow, and process cannabis and distribute related products. Already-licensed operators worried that the ruling could create uncertainty in the fast-growing industry --- while also allowing more companies to receive licenses.

Dodson’s decision came in a challenge filed by Tampa-based Florigrown LLC, which was denied a license by the state and is owned in part by strip-club owner Joe Redner.

Scott’s administration quickly appealed the ruling, and the judge’s order regarding the new licenses is on hold.

The Florigrown case is just one of a number of marijuana-related legal challenges Scott’s administration is appealing. The most high-profile lawsuit is a challenge to the state’s ban on smoking medical marijuana. The plaintiffs in the case include John Morgan, the Orlando trial lawyer who largely bankrolled the 2016 amendment, known as Amendment 2.

It was unclear immediately which legal fights the DeSantis administration might abandon after the former congressman and Nuñez take office on Jan. 8.

“The governor-elect is considering a variety of options on this matter, along with a number of other important issues, and will be discussing these further as we move forward with our transition and administration,” DeSantis transition spokesman Dave Vasquez said in an email when asked to clarify which litigation Nuñez was referring to.

But, like many others, DeSantis has expressed frustration with delays in the roll-out of the amendment. Nuñez reiterated that frustration this week.

“In our discussions, in our involvement in transition, I think he has noted that, sort of the slow pace is something that could potentially be a problem. He wants to make sure that that’s addressed. But I know publicly he has stated he is not interested in continuing the lawsuit,” she said.

One of DeSantis’ top transition advisors is U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Panhandle Republican who was a fierce supporter of medical marijuana when he was in the state House and has continued his advocacy following his election to Congress in 2016.

DeSantis will “faithfully execute the will of the people on medical marijuana,” Gaetz said in a text Friday morning.

“As the author of Florida’s first medical marijuana laws, I’m comforted to know conditions will improve for patients under a governor fully committed to this objective. The governor-elect and I have discussed a variety of strategies. I suspect specifics will be refined in consultation with the health care advisory committee to the transition and Gov.-elect Desantis’s selections for surgeon general and general counsel,” Gaetz said.

When asked whether DeSantis plans to drop the appeal in the Florigrown case, Gaetz said the issue is “one of the specifics that I’m sure our new governor will take under advisement.”

According to Nuñez, who also said she couldn’t answer specific questions related to the licensing caps or the smoking ban, DeSantis believes most issues could be fixed by the Legislature, which begins its 2019 session on March 5.

The new administration --- which, under the amendment, is responsible for implementation of the amendment and oversight of the marijuana industry --- will play a major role, Nuñez indicated.

“Certainly, whoever is heading up that agency has a responsibility to implement. I think he views whoever heads up that agency, whoever is in charge of that particular area, has a responsibility to do so efficiently and effectively without sort of delaying the process, whether it’s how quickly you can get your ID cards, to ensuring that people have access,” she said.

The Office of Compassionate Use has come under harsh criticism, publicly and privately, by lawmakers, patients and would-be marijuana operators, who accuse the agency, a division of the Department of Health, of dragging its feet to craft regulations related to the marijuana industry.

At one point, patients waited for months before receiving state-issued identification cards showing they were eligible for the marijuana treatment. The approval is required for patients to purchase marijuana products.

Agriculture Commissioner-elect Nikki Fried, a Democrat who was once a medical-marijuana lobbyist, called Nuñez’s comments “encouraging” and said she looks forward to speaking with DeSantis “about how we can correctly implement the Constitution as approved by 71 percent of Floridians.”

Fried, a lawyer, played a role in the crafting of the state’s marijuana laws.

“If DeSantis is serious about moving patient access forward, I welcome that wholeheartedly and would love to work with him in any way to get sick and suffering residents of our state the medicine they need,” she said in a statement.

The many investors and prospective operators seeking entry into Florida’s restricted medical marijuana industry also are likely to welcome a shift in state officials’ attitude toward pot.

“Actions speak louder than words but what they’re saying so far seems to indicate that they’re willing to move away from the obstructionist position of the Scott administration and move toward fulfilling the will of more than 71 percent of Floridians and hopefully doing the right thing to implement the amendment,” Ben Pollara, who is a plaintiff in the smoking-ban lawsuit, told the News Service. Pollara was a senior adviser to Fried’s campaign and is co-chairman of her inaugural committee.

But operators already doing business in the state, where licenses have sold for upwards of $70 million, may be more cautious.

“I believe change is coming. This is an evolving industry, and we look forward to working with the Legislature and the new administration,” said Ron Watson, a lobbyist who represents operators currently doing business in the state and others who want to gain entry.