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Changes Cloud Effort To Repeal Pot Smoking Ban

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
News Service of Florida
The Florida Channel
State Rep. Gayle Harrell has been a long-time critic of medical marijuana.

A high-profile effort to repeal the state’s ban on smokable medical marijuana morphed Monday into legislation that, according to the proposal’s author, would be worse for patients than doing nothing at all. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis has given state lawmakers until March 15 – 10 days after the 2019 legislative session begins – to address the smoking ban, which was included in a sweeping 2017 law aimed at implementing a constitutional amendment broadly legalizing medical marijuana.

DeSantis agrees with proponents of the amendment and a Leon County circuit judge that the smoking ban runs afoul of the constitutional amendment, approved by more than 71 percent of voters in 2016. If lawmakers don’t act, the Republican governor threatened to drop the state’s appeal of the judge’s ruling that the ban is unconstitutional.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who has long been a proponent of medical marijuana, has filed a measure (SB 182) to strip the ban from the law.

But at the behest Monday of Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, the Senate Health Policy Committee significantly altered what had been a simple proposal by Brandes.

Under current law, doctors who have undergone two hours of training are able to order marijuana treatment for their patients. Harrell’s changes to the bill would require patients who want to smoke medical marijuana to seek a second opinion, from a doctor who is not certified by the state to order cannabis for patients. If a second doctor gives the nod, patients would then have to return to their original doctor to get the order.

And, under Harrell’s changes, doctors would only be able to order smokable marijuana if it is the only route of administration that will benefit patients.

Brandes argued the “overly limiting” and “radically restrictive” changes would hamper patients and likely would not withstand court scrutiny.

But Harrell, a Stuart Republican who owns a health-care business and whose late husband was a doctor, called the requirements “common-sense safety measures” that would create “guardrails” to protect patients from the dangers of smoking.

“These are safeguards that I believe will go a long way. We are upholding the will of the people. We are allowing smoking of marijuana, but we are putting in place those safeguards that are so key to making sure that we as legislators, we as the health care committee, are doing no harm,” Harrell, who has fiercely opposed the state’s medical marijuana laws, said.

But patients and their advocates argued that requiring three doctor visits --- none of which would be covered by insurance --- would impose an even harsher burden on sick Floridians, who already pay up to $500 for an initial visit with a medical marijuana doctor, $75 dollars for a state-issued patient identification card and up to hundreds of dollars more for their monthly treatment.

Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said he originally supported a separate amendment to the bill that would have banned children under age 18 from smoking medical marijuana, which was later withdrawn.

“I’m twisting and turning in my seat here as we speak trying to arrive at a decision. … Let’s be honest, we’re in a tight spot,” Diaz said before joining Republicans in a 6-4 party-line vote in favor of the amendment to the bill.

But like Brandes, Democrats on the panel objected that the revised bill would create more barriers for sick patients who are already struggling.

“I think it is going to further limit access to patients who are desperately in need of medication. I have a parent who has cancer and has had to utilize medicinal marijuana,” said Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat, referring to her father, lobbyist Ron Book.

The senator said she watched “how difficult it is to get your card, to go to the doctor” and encountered patients who could not afford the medication.

“I think we’re just putting up more roadblocks,” she said.

But Harrell called Monday’s changes a “first step” as the legislation begins to wend its way through the process.

“We are moving certainly in the right direction,” she said.

But Brandes disagreed, saying Harrell put him in an “interesting spot” and noting that he would vote against the measure if he were a member of the committee.

“But I’m not. The challenge that I have is that my name’s on it and I understand that patients right now would be better off with no bill than with this bill,” he said.

The proposal “will have to be significantly amended” before he would be willing to bring it to the Senate floor for a full vote and be able to “look people in the eye and tell them (patients) that they would be better off.”

In a vote on the bill after it was changed, Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, joined Democrats in opposition, resulting in a 5-5 tie that would have killed the measure. But after the committee took a second vote, Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, sided with Republicans to break the tie and allow the proposal to move to the next committee.

After the meeting, Brandes repeated he would not allow the bill to get a full Senate vote as it is.

“Just as Sen. Harrell said doctors have a responsibility to do no harm, I’m not going to do any harm to patients,” he said.

If DeSantis drops the state’s appeal in the smoking ban lawsuit, patients will be able to “go to their physician and get a recommendation for smokable marijuana,” Brandes pointed out.

“It’s simple, straightforward and what I think the Constitution requires us to do,” he said.

Doing away with the smoking ban could also face problems in the House, where Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, has expressed concerns about an across-the-board repeal.

With a month until the legislative session begins March 5, lawmakers still have time to iron out their differences prior to the governor’s March 15 deadline.