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A health department email blast steams Florida's medical pot patients and advocates

Top view of person sitting on a bed smoking marijuana joint while using a laptop to watch a video or film. Cannabis and technology concept.
José Antonio Luque Olmedo
The mass email about Gov. Ron DeSantis' spending plan listed health issues like cancer research, HIV, hepatitis and syphilis and gave a message from Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo. Nothing in the email mentions medical marijuana.

The agency says it didn't single out the 700,000 patients but sent the budget review to everyone in its email databases, including members of the public. Those on the marijuana registry claim it's a privacy violation.

Florida has more than 700,000 medical marijuana patients, and Gov. Ron DeSantis wants them all to know what a great job he's doing.

The Department of Health last week sent a blast email to its medical marijuana patient list boasting that DeSantis signed the state budget.

The department said it didn't single out medical marijuana patients, but rather sent the budget overview to everyone in its email databases, which spokeswoman Weesam Khoury said includes more than “2 million members of the public, health care professionals, licensees and media.”

The email praised a cancer research program promoted by first lady Casey DeSantis, listed health issues like HIV, hepatitis and syphilis that are in the spending plan and gave a message from Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo that he and DeSantis are “advancing public health and personal responsibility in Florida.”

Nothing in the email mentions medical marijuana.

Khoury was asked if the department has email databases for other patients, such as cancer, COVID-19 or HIV, but provided no details if such databases exist or if they also were used to promote the governor's budget.

“It is unfortunate that The Associated Press has decided to write a story about the inconvenience of an email, rather than covering the key investments that will save countless lives,” she said.

Patient advocates say it’s more than just an inconvenience, it’s a violation of privacy — not just because promoting the governor has nothing to do with their health care. Florida has broad public records laws and if someone obtained the master email list, they could deduce who is a medical marijuana patient, since they make up about 35% of the recipients.

Patients could be subject to unwanted marketing and political messages or worse — employers could see who has a medical marijuana card.

“This was a 'look how great the governor is and how much he's done for us at the Department of Health,'" said Jodi James, president of the nonprofit Florida Cannabis Action Network. “My information should not be part of their general email blast list by any stretch of the imagination."

Ironically, DeSantis has been a loud critic of Big Tech and has accused private companies of misusing users' personal information. He is also against a November ballot measure that would add the legalization of recreational marijuana to the state constitution.

“That is revolting. That is really such a misuse of power and information," said state Rep. Kelly Skidmore, the ranking Democrat on the House Health Policy Committee. “I guarantee you nobody checked the box that said, ‘Yes, it’s OK to send me information on Gov. DeSantis’ agenda.’"

It’s shocking the state would use the patient email list for its policy agenda, said state Democratic Party chair Nikki Fried, a former agriculture commissioner who oversaw the list of concealed weapons license holders.

“I would have been scorched alive if I had done anything with that database to either release their information to another part of my agency or to have used that database for pushing the rest of the news or activities from the Department of Agriculture,” Fried said. “It’s irresponsible.”

A medical marijuana patient in Pensacola told The Associated Press that he and others plan to file a formal complaint.

“If it was a doctor that put out your private patient information for some other agenda, I feel like somebody should be held accountable,” said the patient, who didn’t want his name used to protect his medical privacy.

Personal injury lawyer John Morgan, who spearheaded the state’s 2016 medical marijuana effort, questioned how the email didn’t violate federal law restricting the release of medical information. He also said the email list would be a bonanza for people who want to use it for political purposes, including to promote the recreational marijuana proposal.

“That would be the greatest list they could ever have for this election,” he said.