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Medical marijuana is exploding in Florida, and regulators are asking for financial help

The office that oversees the industry is asking for nearly $13 million as part of its expansion plans. Meantime, the health department rolled out an anticipated emergency rule on the Black farmer license.

As Florida’s legal pot industry is poised to mushroom, health regulators are asking lawmakers for nearly $13 million to more than double the number of workers in the office that oversees medical marijuana issues.

Health officials also want $4 million for a state education and prevention campaign to publicize “accurate information” about medical marijuana, money to buy vehicles to transport samples of THC-infused edible products to a testing lab in Jacksonville and additional funds to open three regional offices within the Office of Medical Marijuana Use, according to documents submitted to the Legislature.

The office, known as OMMU, has 80 positions and is seeking to add another 85 employees as the number of patients, which continues to skyrocket since medical cannabis first went on the market in Florida five years ago, is expected to exceed 900,000 by mid-2023.

The new positions would be transferred from “aged, vacant positions” assigned to county health departments, the proposal said.

About $5.7 million of the office’s $12.9 million “workload” request would go toward hiring 85 full-time workers and the remainder would cover “contracted services” and other expenses.

Part of the outsourced work is intended to help process an expected influx of applications from businesses hoping to enter Florida’s lucrative market. Health officials are expected to begin doling out licenses that will more than double the state’s number of operators, known as medical marijuana treatment centers.

Florida has 22 licensed medical marijuana operators. But a 2017 law set up a schedule for new licenses to come online as the number of patients increases.

The increase in patients and operators “presents a considerable increase in demand” on the office’s staffing resources, the budget proposal said.

With more than 620,000 patients “qualified” for medical marijuana, the law requires health officials to add 19 medical marijuana treatment centers to the existing operators.

The number of operators should have grown incrementally as the number of patients boomed, but officials in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration said they were holding off on opening the application process for new licenses until the Florida Supreme Court ruled in a key medical marijuana lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed by Tampa-based Florigrown LLC, challenged a requirement in the 2017 law that medical marijuana operators handle all aspects of the business -- cultivation, processing and distribution -- instead of allowing companies to focus on individual components of the marijuana trade.

The court in May upheld the law, which was designed to carry out a 2016 constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana in Florida for patients with a broad swath of medical conditions. Lawmakers in 2014 had approved limited use of non-euphoric cannabis.

Senior aides to DeSantis told The News Service of Florida in June that the Department of Health was preparing to launch the license-application process within “weeks to months.”

The 2017 law also required state health officials to award a license to a Black farmer with ties to Florida, but Black farmers have remained closed out of the industry, where licenses routinely sell for upwards of $50 million.

The Department of Health rolled out an emergency rule Thursday that will initiate the application process for the Black farmer license, but the proposal doesn’t include a timeline for when applications will be accepted.

According to the budget proposal submitted last month, the Office of Medical Marijuana Use anticipates issuing 19 new licenses by July 1 and another eight licenses by July 1, 2023. The document said the office contracted with a consultant who estimated that the state would receive 150 applications each licensing cycle.

The proposal also requests a total of $2.15 million for litigation related to the licenses and rulemaking involving the application process, an increase of $650,000 over the amount allocated in the current budget year. Lawmakers will consider the budget request during the legislative session that starts in January.

The spending proposal also lays out the need for “contracted services” to review license applications and for other processes, including the issuance of patient and caregiver identification cards, a service required by law to be performed by a contractor. Outsourcing also is needed for “acceptance of qualified physician documentation” from doctors participating in the state’s medical marijuana program, expansion of the Office of Medical Marijuana Use’s regional offices and software, according to the budget proposal.

The office “has taken a strategic and measured approach to the growth of its workforce” and plans to add regional offices in the Orlando, Miami and Tampa Bay areas and expand offices in Alachua and West Palm Beach, the budget document said.

The office also is pairing with the Department of Health’s Bureau of Public Health Laboratories in Jacksonville to conduct random testing on samples of edibles sold by medical marijuana operators, according to the document.

“The OMMU requires a method to securely transport medical marijuana product from as far south as Key West --- and as far west as Pensacola --- to the BPHL-Jacksonville laboratory. Currently OMMU and BPHL do not have sufficient budget authority to purchase motor vehicles,” said the proposal, which asks for about $280,000 to purchase six vehicles and two refrigerated transport containers.